COVID-19 in the Occupied Territories
Coronavirus infection rates skyrocket in the Gaza Strip

Health experts in the Gaza Strip are sounding the alarm, fearing the pandemic could soon rage out of control. Hospitals there are wholly unprepared for the situation and doctors are pleading for international assistance. Kerstin Knipp has the details

After much effort, the Gaza Health Ministry was recently able to increase the number of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients from 100 to 150. In the coming week, it hopes to add another 30 beds. But those exertions will likely be of little help if the coronavirus continues to spread at its current pace.

"There is no infrastructure to combat epidemics or crises in the Gaza Strip," said Iyad Abu Karsh of the Health Ministry. If the international community fails to step in and help, he said the pandemic could turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Living conditions in the Gaza Strip contribute to the spread of the virus. At 360 square kilometres (roughly 140 square miles), the area is home to nearly 2 million people a population density of more than 5,300 people per square kilometre. By comparison, Germany has an average population density of just 230 people per square kilometre.

Housing is also in short supply. In January, just weeks before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Deputy Housing Minister Naji Sarhan said the Gaza Strip was in need of at least 12,000 new apartments. This shortage has only contributed to the spread of the virus, with most people in the region living in extremely difficult circumstances.

Members of the World Health Organization inspecting a temporary quarantine ward in Rafah (photo: Reuters/WHO in the Occupied Palestinian Territories)
Coronavirus in the Gaza Strip particularly threatening for an already suffering civilian population: "There is no infrastructure to combat epidemics or crises in the Gaza Strip," says Iyad Abu Karsh of the Palestinian Ministry of Health. After much effort, the Gaza Health Ministry has recently been able to increase the number of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients from 100 to 150. In the coming week, it hopes to add another 30 beds

"A disaster"

"It's a disaster," says Ahmed Alnajar. The young man from Gaza became infected in late November and was admitted to the hospital with severe symptoms, before eventually recovering and being released. "Every single person in my family is infected, our neighbours, too."

"There is hardly a street where someone isn't infected," he continues, adding that crowded living conditions are seriously affecting the inhabitants. "Not only are we suffering from the virus, but also from the psychological impact that the illness brings with it. And that is especially oppressive in such cramped quarters."

Many in the region are also facing an extremely precarious economic situation, with the unemployment rate recently hovering around 45%. The youth unemployment rate is higher still. Sami Al-Amsi, head of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, said the real number now exceeds 82% as a result of the pandemic, which has so far destroyed more than 160,000 jobs.

Roughly 13,000 people in Gaza earn their income working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), making the agency the largest employer in Gaza. "People there are largely dependent upon international assistance," the agency's director, Philippe Lazzarini, confirmed in a recent interview. But the UNRWA itself is massively underfunded, putting important services at risk.

Children wait in a car for the Rafah border crossing to Egypt to open (photo: Ashraf Amra/ZUMA Wire/Imago images)
Wearing masks, yet packed together: the number of infections is rising dramatically in the sealed-off Gaza Strip, with more than 1,800 new cases being registered across the Palestinian territories – Gaza and the West Bank – each day. In total, more than 75,000 infections and over 650 deaths have already been registered in the Palestinian territories. If things continue at this rate, the situation will get out of control in ten days at the latest, says microbiologist Abdelraouf El-Manama, a member of the government task force set up specifically to combat the pandemic

Ahmed Al-Bana, a 25-year-old carpenter who lost his job when the pandemic hit, now makes a living selling face masks in Gaza City. "I work here for a few hours every day," he said amid bustling pedestrians on Omar Mukhtar Street. "I have to pack it in around five in the afternoon. To me, hunger is more dangerous than the virus."

Al-Bana lives with his family since he doesn't have a place of his own. "My father is ill. We don't get any help. That's why I go out and work despite the risks. But I follow safety rules and I also wear a mask," he said.

Dramatic spike in infections

Meanwhile, infection rates are skyrocketing, with more than 1,800 new cases being registered across the Palestinian territories Gaza and the West Bank each day. In all, more than 81,000 infections and 700 deaths have been registered here since the outbreak began.

On 22 November, Abdelraouf Elmanama, a member of Gaza's government pandemic task force, said the situation would be entirely out of control by early December if infection rates continued at their current pace. "[At that point] the health system will become unable to absorb such a hike in cases and there might be cases that will not find a place at intensive care units," he said, adding that the current 0.5% mortality rate among COVID-19 patients could rise.

Abdelnaser Soboh, an emergency health coordinator with the World Health Organization in Gaza, warned that by December 1, medical services for COVID-19 patients could collapse. Infection rates among those individuals being tested in the area currently hover around 21%, and increasingly, those infected are over the age of 60. "This is a dangerous indicator since most of [those over 60] may need to be hospitalised," Soboh said.

With Gaza in desperate need of immediate medical assistance, authorities like Fathi Abuwarda, an adviser to the Palestinian health minister, are pleading with the international community to provide medical equipment. If those pleas go unheeded, infection and death rates in the region will continue to climb.

Kerstin Knipp

© Deutsche Welle 2020

Translated from the German by Jon Shelton

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