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Corona in the Gaza Strip: the virus breaks the blockade

The first to develop Covid-19 in Gaza. The high population density and a dilapidated health system do not suggest anything good.

, Corona in the Gaza Strip: the virus breaks the blockade, The Eastern Herald, The Eastern Herald
Palestinian volunteers disinfect a street in Rafah Photo: Ismael Mohamad / imago

“The fear here is like war,” writes the photo reporter Mohammed Zaanoun of the TEH, “only that the murderer is unknown.” Until last weekend, like many others in the Gaza Strip, Zaanoun had clung to the hope that the isolated coastline of the corona crisis would be spared. 

Hardly any other area is as isolated as the Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. Only two border crossings in Gaza are intended for passenger traffic: the Eres crossing to Israel, which only a few Palestinians can pass with a special permit, and the Rafah crossing to Egypt.  

However, the first two corona cases in Gaza have now become known: Pakistan returnees who entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing have been tested positive. The fear has been great ever since. 

Zaanoun’s photos testify to the change that took place on Sunday when the two corona infected people became known. The Hamas government had already imposed exit restrictions two weeks ago. Markets, restaurants, cafes, and mosques are closed; Friday prayers are also canceled. But since Sunday the streets have been swept empty, as Zaanoun’s photos show. And even pack donkeys are put on face masks. 

Quarantine in schools and hotels 

“Fortunately, the two have been in quarantine since entering the country,” said Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) for the Palestinian Territories. He currently supports the Hamas Ministry of Health in the corona crisis with medical advice. “The risk that the virus will spread from them is minimal.” The two infected are currently in a quarantine station at the Rafah border crossing. 

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Since March 15th, people who have passed one of the two border crossings have been placed in a 14-day quarantine. A total of around 1,300 people are in quarantine accommodation, some of them in Rafah, others in quarantined schools or hotels that are spread across the Gaza Strip. A further 2,100 people in the area are in quarantine at home. 

“Because of the blockade, the Hamas government can hardly keep up with providing food for the people in the quarantine accommodations,” Mariam Puvogel, office manager of the aid organization Medico International in Israel and Palestine, told TEH. “Sometimes family members come to bring groceries. That, of course, poses an infection risk. ” 

If the spread of the coronavirus such as in Italy or Spain were to occur in the densely populated Gaza Strip, the effects would be fatal. “Living conditions are already tough anyway,” writes Zaanoun, “the simplest things are missing.” On average, a household in the Gaza Strip only has six to eight hours of electricity a day. Added to this is the high population density: Gaza City is three times as densely populated as Berlin. Zaanoun lives with his family of twenty in Gaza City, in an apartment of 150 square meters.

50 to 60 ventilators in Gaza 

The people in the Gaza Strip know how poorly the country is medically cared for. Aid organizations have been warning for years that the Gaza Strip’s health system is on the verge of collapse. There is a lack of medical personnel and equipment.

According to the WHO director in the Gaza Strip, Abdelnaser Soboh, the area with its almost 2 million inhabitants has only 50 to 60 ventilators and around 2,500 hospital beds in total. For comparison: Hamburg has around 12,000 hospital beds with a similar population.

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In Rafah, a field hospital made up of tents and containers was built last week, with additional beds for intensive care. But should an outbreak actually occur, that would hardly be sufficient. Further support from the international community would then be required, says Gerald Rockenschaub from the WHO: “Test kits, medical equipment, and protective equipment for health workers are required.”