First cases of Covid-19 in Gaza, as West Bank closes
The first two cases of Covid-19 in Gaza have been confirmed, raising fears about how the besieged territory’s overstretched health system will cope if the virus spreads through its population of 2 million.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian prime minister ordered people to stay at home for two weeks from last night in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, with exemptions for medical personnel, pharmacists, grocers and bakers. People will be allowed out to shop for food. In Ramallah, there were long queues at supermarkets and people bulk buying goods, after the new measures were announced.
The two Gaza cases are men aged 79 and 63 who had returned to Gaza from Pakistan via Egypt at the weekend. They were placed in quarantine in the town of Rafah on Gaza’s border with Egypt. Officials said that all those who had been in contact with the men had also been quarantined. “Thank God, the circle of contact wasn’t big,” said Salama Marouf, the chairman of the Gaza government media office.
Gaza’s isolation, which includes severe restrictions on the cross-border movement of people, may have delayed the virus’s arrival. It could, however, spread rapidly given the concentration of people in overcrowded cities and refugee camps. There are similar concerns about a catastrophe if the virus turns up in war-torn Syria, Libya or Yemen.
Hamas, which governs Gaza, previously closed schools, and on Friday ordered weekly street markets and wedding halls to shut. Almost 1,300 people returning from abroad have been placed in quarantine. Sanitation crews have been spraying disinfectant in streets and public buildings.
Palestinians have also been urged to pray at home rather than in mosques, and not to hold traditional mourning gatherings.
According to Abdelnasser Soboh, the director of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office, the territory has 62 ventilators but may need another 100 if the virus takes hold.
Gaza’s public health system has been severely tested by repeated military conflicts with Israel over the past 12 years, and is chronically short of drugs and equipment.
An Israeli blockade, in place since 2007 although eased in recent years, has limited the import of medicines and other essential items. Israel said on Saturday that it was closing its borders with Gaza and the West Bank to commercial traffic, though some patients and humanitarian staff could cross. It has sent 200 coronavirus testing kits to Gaza in recent days.
“Viruses and diseases have no borders, and so prevention of an outbreak of the coronavirus in Gaza [and the West Bank] are a prime Israeli interest,” said the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), the Israeli military body that coordinates with the Palestinian Authority.
Several other countries in the Middle East have sealed their borders and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses.
Ghada Majadle of Physicians for Human Rights Israel said preparations in Gaza for an outbreak of coronavirus were minimal. “This is not surprising considering the condition of the Palestinian healthcare system in general and in the Strip in particular. It is Israel’s duty to do everything required so that in Gaza they will be able to stop the outbreak of the virus.”
There have been 59 confirmed cases in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Israel has recorded 945 confirmed cases and one death.
A sanitation worker sprays disinfectant in Gaza City, where the health system has been severely tested by 12 years under blockade