By Aziz Abouzayed
Since December 2019, COVID-19 has been causing mayhem around the world, exhausting health professional and taking the lives of hundreds of people every week.
Although Gaza has been spared so far, its population is preparing itself for a new public health struggle on top of already existing ones such as getting essential medical supplies like bandages and clean oxygen tanks for hospitals.
In 2017, the UN predicted that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. With unemployment rates peaking at 69% among the youth, and poverty rates skyrocketing due to the siege enforced by Israel and Egypt since 2007, Gaza has long been uninhabitable for many. Gaza’s understaffed and under-supplied hospitals can barely keep up with the demand of a growing population of two million Palestinians. During my last encounter with a hospital, it had no antibiotics or even painkillers to give out to patients who couldn’t afford retail prices in pharmacies -which are much lower than in the west.
The Israeli siege and the Palestinian Authority’s budget cuts to Gaza, aimed at flushing Hamas out of its de-facto rule in the Strip, are causing severe limitations to both the capacity and effectiveness of Gaza’s hospitals. As a result, Gaza is far from ready to face a new public health challenge in addition to its current miseries.
Palestinians also fear Israel might also use the virus as a pretext for imposing even more restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. The small number of Palestinians who are allowed to leave Gaza through Israel already have extensive restrictions. They are limited to carry only duffle bags, one smartphone, and one pair of shoes. Everything else is banned citing “security threats”. (Ed note: Gisha reported on Mar 11 that Israel has just imposed such restrictions.)
On Friday, March 6th, 2020, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of national emergency for 30 days. Abbas’s decision resulted in shutting down educational institutions in Gaza and the West Bank, in an effort to contain the spread of the corona virus. However, Hamas, who exclusively control Gaza, initially announced that the geographically isolated Strip should not be included in the emergency state.
Ahmed Alsalhi, an UNRWA-employed teacher of English, objected, calling for a school break for students and teachers to protect them from the contagious epidemic. Alsalhi said in the screenshot above.“A classroom has around 45 pupils, (…) student-student, student-teacher, and teacher-teacher interaction is extensive, students do not wash their hands after going to the toilet, and they have a habit of spitting and other unhealthy practices.”
Hamas subsequently reversed its decision – schools and universities in Gaza are now closed for a month.
In another FB post, Lana Hijazi, a Palestinian filmmaker, noted “Prior to the corona -situation, some people were already financially challenged, some were scraping livelihood from garbage containers… Cleaning and sanitizing products is not even on their minds. Think about that!!.”
Others in Gaza show dark humour in the face of the arrival of the corona virus to the country as 30 cases were confirmed in the West Bank, and 128 other cases in Israel as of March 11th.
Ibrahim Raba posted a picture of a local cafe in Gaza satirically labelling a portion of it as a “Quarantine Zone”. Corona is also a language pun with Zorona, meaning visit us in Arabic.”
More than ever, people around the world should empathize with the Palestinians in Gaza. European cities are being placed on lockdown, following the footsteps of China, Iran, Korea, and other nations.
While the rest of the world is calling for minimizing travel plans to avoid infection and the spread of the disease, those of us who are in Gaza have no option! We have been under an involuntary “quarantine” for over 12 years! As those cities and countries are restricted and ghettoized, and their health care systems are stressed and overwhelmed, one can only imagine what the Palestinians go through every single day under apartheid Israel.
If this is not a time for solidarity and compassion with the Palestinian people, I wonder when is? Will Gaza’s siege contribute to keeping out COVID-19 or will we witness a catastrophe where Palestinians have to face another enemy that seeks to destroy their lives and livelihoods?