With most of my relatives living abroad, I have quite a small extended family inside Gaza.
Being closely knit means that we share the same experiences. Our shared experiences have generally been joyful, particularly when we have been able to gather together.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have done what we can to protect each other. Yet we have not been able to escape the virus.
In August 2020, both my mother and my aunt Jamila tested positive.
Both have underlying conditions. My mother has cancer, Jamila has heart disease.
After contracting COVID, both women were severely exhausted and had trouble breathing for a couple of weeks. Then they recovered.
In April 2021, I was infected with the virus myself. So were my two children and my husband – though he was asymptomatic.
For two weeks, we had to isolate ourselves from the outside world.
Despite our direct experiences with the virus, I did not feel nervous about it. I had a feeling that everyone in my extended family would survive.
Israel’s attack on Gaza in May 2021 was infinitely more terrifying for us than the pandemic had been until then.
I am no longer so relaxed about COVID.
In December last year, the health ministry here confirmed that some cases of the omicron variant had been detected in Gaza.
On hearing that news, I became fearful for my relatives, whom I love dearly. I had an intuition that something terrible was going to happen.
Tragically, my fears turned into reality. In January, I received the phone call I had been dreading.
It was from my father. Our uncle Ahmad – Jamila’s husband – had COVID.
Ahmad was already very unwell from the virus when I got the call. He died later in January at the age of 80.
His death came as a major shock.
Ahmad was fully vaccinated. He had good health for most of his life and was hugely popular, especially with my children.
Due to the COVID situation, my extended family has not offered Jamila as much support as we would have done in different circumstances.
Some relatives have only been able to speak with her by phone. They include my uncle Majed and his wife, both of whom have tested positive for COVID recently.
My mother also has to be extra careful at the moment. She has just had her last dose of chemotherapy.
For that reason, my mother did not go to Ahmad’s funeral.
I have two sisters – just one of whom lives in Gaza – and three brothers. They did not go to the funeral either.
My husband Hamza and I did go to the funeral. So did my father, Jamila’s brother.
It was important for us to try and comfort Jamila. But I really wish that more people could have been there.
Jamila is heartbroken. I wish that everyone in Gaza could embrace and console her.
Despite all this grief, I am convinced that my relatives’ decision not to attend the funeral was the correct one.
We had lost a loved one to COVID. The last thing we needed was for somebody else to become infected at the funeral.
As my uncle Majed said: “All I hope is that the virus does not kill another member of our family.”
According to World Health Organization data, approximately 1,900 people have died from COVID-19 in Gaza so far. Less than 500,000 out of Gaza’s two million inhabitants are fully vaccinated.
Treating patients with COVID-19 has proven extremely challenging for Gaza’s hospitals.
For about 15 years now, Israel has imposed a complete blockade on Gaza. The blockade has badly affected the healthcare system.
As a response to COVID-19, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza bought an oxygen generator from the occupied West Bank in February last year. Twelve months later, Israel had still not allowed it to enter Gaza.
Israel, the occupying power, has an obligation under international law to ensure that the medical needs of people in Gaza are fulfilled.
Vaccines save lives
Israel has depicted itself as one of the world’s most successful countries in organizing a rapid vaccination campaign against COVID. The media in Europe and North America have promoted Israel as a success story, usually omitting the fact that its vaccination campaign did not extend to millions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
While the vaccination program has been inadequate, there has also been a marked reluctance among many people in Gaza to get vaccinated.
I conducted a straw poll of 30 people aged between 25 and 50. In total, 24 out of the 30 said that they did not want to be vaccinated.
From speaking with these people, it appeared that many had been influenced by lies and conspiracy theories about vaccines spread on the internet.
It is dreadful that lies can be powerful when the benefits of vaccination are clear. The local health ministry states that 95 percent of the people in Gaza who have died from COVID-19 were not vaccinated.
There is no real doubt that vaccines save lives and help infection rates to decrease.
It is true that my uncle was fully vaccinated and still died from COVID. I nonetheless remain convinced that vaccination is vital.
I have lost a much-loved uncle to COVID-19. I do not want anyone else to suffer in the way that my family has.
All I ask is that people do what they can to end the pandemic. The most important thing is to get vaccinated.
Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.