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Coronavirus: Gaza faces worst-case scenario

Lewis Sanders IV
March 18, 2020

The coastal enclave is considered one of the worst-prepared places to deal with a severe outbreak of the coronavirus. UN agencies and human rights lawyers are calling for life-saving assistance before it's too late.

Officials carry out disinfection works as a precaution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at Great Mosque of Gaza in Israeli blockaded Gaza City, Gaza
Image: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/A. Jadallah

Where is the last place you would want to be in the event of an outbreak? Some would say Gaza.

The coastal enclave on the eastern Mediterranean is considered one of the most densely-populated areas and UN officials have described its health care system as a crisis waiting to happen.

Although public health authorities in the Gaza Strip have yet to announce a case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), observers believe it's only a matter of time as the pandemic sweeps across the globe.

"We are truly worried because the overall health structure in Gaza is already weak because of the recurrent conflicts and because of nearly 14 years [of] blockade," UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told DW.

Read more: EU closes borders to foreigners to halt coronavirus spread: What to know

 A member of a Palestinian health team in protective gear disinfects a patient's bed at Beit Jala Hospital
In the West Bank, public health authorities have confirmed more than 40 casesImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Al Shaer

Looming crisis

The confluence of conflict and blockade has left local health authorities ill-prepared for an outbreak of the magnitude currently seen in other countries, with Gaza in dire need of disinfectants, protective gear for medical staff and life-saving medicines, according to the UNRWA.

The UN agency is charged with providing assistance and protection to Palestinian refugees. But funding cuts spurred by the Trump administration has left it in a particularly vulnerable position.

Given the situation, the agency has requested $14 million (€12.8 million) for emergency preparedness and response operations in anticipation of an outbreak.

"It really isn't much to ask for in the face of the possible humanitarian catastrophe," Tamara said. "We really hope that there will be no outbreak in Gaza, we truly hope it can be averted, but we know that being under blockade doesn't mean that the virus will not cross into Gaza."

Read more: Israel to use counterterror tools to track quarantine breakers

'Israel's responsibility'

But some argue that the responsibility for dealing with such an outbreak falls on Israeli authorities given their status under international law as the "occupying power," a term enshrined in UN resolutions but contested by the Israeli government. 

Earlier this week, international and human rights lawyer Shannon Maree Torrens penned an op-ed in the Tel Aviv-based newspaper Haaretz urging Israel, along with local authorities and the international community, to take responsibility for what she described as "one of the world's most at risk populations."

However, if Israel failed to do so, then neighboring Egypt would have to step in, for example, by providing passage to those in need of intensive care, Torrens told DW. But Egyptian authorities are also dealing with their own severely-underreported outbreak.

"For now the unfolding situation in Gaza is primarily Israel's responsibility," Torrens said. "Israel must focus on assisting with the testing of those in Gaza, coordinating with Palestinian leaders and providing health care to affected individuals."

Read more: Coronavirus: Is Egypt suppressing the true outbreak figures?

Transcending borders

On the Israeli side, some precautions are being taken. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) of the Israeli Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. However, COGAT civil affairs chief Colonel Sharon Biton said last week that his office and the Palestinian Authorities are "cooperating closely and effectively to manage the outbreak of the virus," including Gaza. Biton noted that the novel coronavirus "does not recognize geographic borders."

So far, Israeli authorities have donated 200 test kits and suggested they could scale up assistance in the event of an outbreak. Meanwhile, Hamas has closed schools, mosques and its land border with Egypt.

Read more: Gaza's youth stare into the abyss

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