COVID-19 pandemic
Besieged Gaza on the verge of coronavirus catastrophe

The ongoing Israeli blockade, an overstretched health system and a lack of vital medical supplies: coronavirus spells disaster for Gaza’s beleaguered population. By Alessandra Bajec

Coronavirus testing re-started in the Gaza Strip after 480 testing kits purchased by the World Health Organization (WHO) reportedly arrived in the enclave on Sunday night. The Palestinian health ministry had warned of a critical health situation in Gaza after the central laboratory ran out of supplies to process COVID19 tests last week.

Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the health ministry, pointed out last Thursday that the absence of such supplies would cause a large backlog of pending tests, and delay the procedures for ending the isolation of hundreds of quarantined people as a result. In a news briefing on Saturday, Qudra appealed to the international community and relief organisations to help Gaza face the pandemic by procuring vital medical and lab necessities.

As of 14 April, there were 13 confirmed cases of COVID19 in the coastal strip, nine of them having recovered and four, in a stable condition, remaining in isolation at Rafah crossing field hospital, on the border with Egypt.

“Even before the disease epidemic, Gaza capacity was under heavy strain because of more than a decade of severe restrictions on movement of goods and people”, Suhair Zakkout, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman in Gaza, stressed, “the already shaken health system will be incapable of handling a coronavirus outbreak”.

Fears of rapid contagion

Officials and aid workers have voiced serious concern that a shortage of essential equipment and medical supplies could trigger rapid contagion in the besieged territory, 365 square kilometres in area and home to a population of two million people.

Currently, the Strip has some 2,500 available beds;  its 13 hospitals have only 110 intensive care unit (ICU) places, of which the majority are occupied. There is a 50% shortage of medication and medical facilities, and just 93 ventilators are available.

Public primary healthcare facilities are operating at limited capacity, providing key services only, in an attempt to further curb the spread of the virus. There is an acute scarcity of essential drugs, medical disposables, equipment necessary for medical examination, and specialised health professionals. Based on ICRC estimates, Gaza would currently only be able to deal with 100-150 coronavirus cases.

Social distancing is hardly feasible in the small enclave, one of the most densely populated places on earth, where the majority of the inhabitants live in tightly-packed refugee camps, making essential hygiene and infection control a huge challenge.

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