Coronavirus would see “collapse” of Gaza health system

A Palestinian man prays outside the shuttered Mosque of Omar in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on 8 March.

Abedalrahman Hassan APA images

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the occupied West Bank has increased to 25, the World Health Organization reported on Monday.

That figure appears to be inclusive only of the Palestinian population and not the more than 620,000 residents of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

As of Monday, Israel had reported 42 cases of the coronavirus. One of those cases includes a Jerusalem man who visited Ariel settlement in the West Bank before being quarantined the following day.

The most serious of the cases reported by Israel is a Palestinian from East Jerusalem whose condition has continued to deteriorate. The 38-year-old is on a respirator, fighting for his life, according to reports.

The man works as a bus driver and drove a group of Greek pilgrims during their recent visit to Israel and the West Bank. Several of those pilgrims tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return home.

There have been more than 110,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 105 countries and territories, resulting in 3,800 deaths worldwide.

“Threat of pandemic very real”

The head of the World Health Organization warned on Monday that “Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real.”

With more than 7,600 cases of COVID-19 and 244 deaths in 16 Mediterranean countries, the risk of an outbreak in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “very high,” according to the WHO.

Of the 25 confirmed cases so far reported in the West Bank, all are in Bethlehem except for one case in Tulkarm. None of the 25 people infected have presented symptoms, the WHO stated.

Thirteen Americans quarantined at a Bethlehem-area hotel tested negative for the virus over the weekend.

No coronavirus cases have been reported so far in Gaza, where authorities have established a quarantine center on the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Fifty-five cases, including one death, have been reported so far in Egypt.

“Many will die”

The spread of the coronavirus to Gaza would be catastrophic and “many will die,” an official with Gaza’s health ministry told The Independent.

Nearly half of essential medicines in Gaza, which has been under a severe Israeli blockade since 2007, are stocked at less than a one-month supply or are completely depleted.

“Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, our health system is on its knees already. If we have just one case it will be transmitted rapidly,” Dr. Yousef Abu El-Reesh told the UK newspaper.

Gaza’s health ministry has encouraged travelers returning from Egypt and Israel to self-isolate, “but we cannot enforce it,” Abu El-Reesh added.

The head of the WHO’s office in Gaza said that there are just 50 test kits for the coronavirus in the territory and enough protective gear for 100 medical professionals to treat patients who test positive.

A large number of cases would contribute to the “collapse” of Gaza’s health system, the official warned.

The health ministry in the Strip urged Gaza’s two million residents to avoid travel outside the territory.

Gaza’s education ministry announced on Sunday a five-day closure of schools and kindergartens. Several universities in the territory have already suspended classes for a month.

The Palestinian Authority declared a 30-day state of emergency after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on Thursday.

Emergency measures include closing schools and restrictions on large public gatherings.

On Monday, Jordan closed its side of the West Bank crossing, though the Israeli-operated side remained open. Travel through the crossing is currently limited to West Bank and East Jerusalem ID-holders, as well as those with UN and diplomatic passports.

Israel imposes mandatory quarantine

Israel’s interior minister announced on Monday that all Israelis returning from travel abroad must enter a 14-day quarantine.

Israeli media indicated that a comprehensive quarantine on all arrivals, regardless of their port of origin, may have been a move to avoid angering the Trump administration in Washington by specifically isolating those traveling from the US.

There have been 545 confirmed cases of the virus responsible for COVID-19 and 22 deaths in the US, where there has been little organized response and the president continues to downplay its risks.

Some 80,000 people in Israel are currently believed to be in self-isolation.

Israel’s health ministry warned the number of cases could rise to the tens of thousands.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.