Coronavirus disaster looms in Gaza

Cases of COVID-19 in Gaza more than tripled over the past month.

Osama Baba APA images

The head of UNRWA, the chronically cash-strapped United Nations agency that serves some 5.6 million Palestinian refugees, has sounded a more dire warning than usual as COVID-19 cases surge in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“We are stretched beyond capacity and about to crash,” UNRWA secretary-general Philippe Lazzarini said on Monday.

He stated that the agency does “not yet have sufficient funds to pay November salaries” to UNRWA’s 28,000 staff, most of whom are Palestinian refugees.

Lazzarini added that UNRWA needs $70 million “to avoid additional painful measures in the coming weeks.”

He attributed the precarious financial situation to a drop in core contributions to the agency after the US, formerly UNRWA’s largest donor, withdrew funding in 2018.

Saudi Arabia, which gave $50 million to UNRWA’s core programming in 2018 to help fill the funding gap created by the US, contributed just $2 million to that budget last year.

US funding to UNRWA is expected to resume once President-elect Joe Biden takes the ropes from Donald Trump, whose administration is packed with pro-settlement extremists who have sought to make Palestinian refugees disappear while decrying supposed anti-Israel bias at the UN.

While the Biden administration will not be as gleeful as its predecessor when it comes to supporting violations of international law, Israel has little to worry about and can continue to count on the US to subsidize the occupation and shield it from accountability.

Frontline of COVID-19 response

Meanwhile, UNRWA’s staff are “the frontline of the response” to COVID-19 in the Eastern Mediterranean region where it operates. “Among UN agencies, UNRWA staff reports the highest number of COVID-19 cases,” Lazzarini said.

Health authorities are warning that the medical system in Gaza – where nearly 75 percent of the population of two million are refugees – is on the verge of collapse as COVID-19 cases tripled in the besieged territory over the past month.

“Within a week, we will become unable to care for critical cases,” Abdelnaser Soboh, the World Health Organization’s emergency health coordinator in Gaza, told media.

The capacity of Gaza’s health system has deteriorated after more than a decade of Israeli blockade and successive military assaults. It had already been overwhelmed by the flood of catastrophic injuries requiring ongoing treatment due to Israel’s use of live fire to maim and kill protesters in the two years leading up to the pandemic.

There are currently some 7,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Gaza and more than 9,000 in the West Bank, though official figures are believed to be much lower than the actual rates due to limited testing.

The Palestinian health minister in the West Bank says the true number of cases might be three times higher than the official figures indicate.

Socioeconomic crises

The economy in the West Bank and Gaza will shrink by 8 percent in 2020 largely due to COVID-19 restrictions, the World Bank has projected. Meanwhile, some 121,000 Palestinians lost their jobs in the second quarter of the year alone.

UNRWA’s funding shortfall will only worsen an already bad situation.

The agency’s 13,000 employees in Gaza “will be the most affected,” according to the UN monitoring group OCHA.

UNRWA’s chief noted that while funding to UNRWA has decreased, the “needs of Palestine refugees have increased significantly as a result of conflicts and multiple socioeconomic crises.”

Lazzarini added that “needs today cannot be compared with those in 2012. Yet, sadly, resources available are at the same level.”

He warned that “despair and economic uncertainty is a dangerous cocktail that the region does not need.”


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.