First cases of Covid-19 in Gaza, as West Bank closes

The Guardian - - News | Coronaviru­s - Har­riet Sher­wood and agen­cies

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: APA IMAGES/REX/ SHUT­TER­STOCK

A san­i­ta­tion worker sprays dis­in­fec­tant in Gaza City, where the health sys­tem has been se­verely tested by 12 years un­der block­ade

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