COVID-19 in Gaza: The Need to Lift the Blockade
As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and cases and fatalities rise daily, these times call for essential geopolitical solidarity among even the most bitter of enemies. The United Nations has called for the suspension of all sanctions against the likes of Sudan, Venezuela, and Iran, countries for whom sanctions have dealt a severe blow to infrastructure, including in health care. One place that is ill-equipped to combat a pandemic, where the health system has been teetering on the edge for over a decade, is the besieged Gaza Strip, where a Gazan woman was recently confirmed as the first death in the region from the virus.
Gaza, under the rule of the Islamic militant group Hamas since 2006, has been under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt for nearly 13 years. This period has been marred by deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas, in which thousands of Palestinians have been killed, buildings and facilities destroyed, and the allowance of essential medical supplies and food severely limited to the bare minimum needed for survival. 97% of the water in the Gaza Strip is unfit for human consumption, and electricity is severely limited to a few hours per day.
While one cannot ignore the attacks and incendiary rhetoric of this intractable conflict, we must not lose sight of the fact that 70% of the nearly 2 million people in Gaza are refugees; half of the population are children. Gaza is also one of the most densely populated places on earth. The squalid conditions in its refugee camps, combined with its under-equipped hospitals and medical facilities, mean that a COVID-19 outbreak could be devastating. Its dense population means that “social distancing” is practically impossible.
At the moment, there are only 2,500 beds and 87 ventilators available in Gaza. As highlighted by Palestinian-Canadian physician Dr. Tarek Loubani, many of these units are either already in use or woefully insufficient. It cannot manage the nightmare scenario of thousands of Gazans contracting the virus. Moreover, Israeli defense minister Naftali Bennett has recently halted COVID-19 testing in Gaza.
Another issue here is the fact that Gaza’s limited access to electricity has meant that most hospitals are heavily dependent on generators. More importantly, much of the Gazan population already suffers from various medical conditions in part due to injuries sustained in the conflict, inadequate nutrition and contamination, and cancers for which access to treatment is extremely limited. The immunocompromised state of so many Gazans renders them even more susceptible to the lethality of the virus.
We write this simply as a call to stress the dire health crisis that exists in Gaza, one that is sadly, in large part, manmade, manifesting from the blockade of the besieged enclave and devastation imparted by war. Why is this issue relevant to us here in the United States? Well, the U.S. is the principal financial supporter of Israel and has thereby perpetuated the blockade of Gaza. It has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Israel and vetoed virtually all U.N. resolutions holding Israel accountable for the blockade, thus enabling it to act with impunity in Gaza. Moreover, the recent decisions of the Trump administration to cut all funding to The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a major provider of essential humanitarian and medical aid, has contributed further to the deterioration of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the healthcare system in Gaza would likely not be able to cope with more than 100 to 150 serious COVID-19 cases at any one time. The situation is further compounded by the fact that, due to the blockade, many local medical professionals have left Gaza over the years in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere, meaning that medical manpower is also an issue. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s decision to cut all funding to UNRWA has meant that the cash-strapped organization has not been able to effectively carry out preventative health measures, such as sanitizing the refugee camps in the region.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has indicated that Israel, while having allowed certain pharmaceuticals to enter Gaza, has either delayed or prevented the import of medical equipment, consumables, and spare parts. The Palestinian Authority (PA) also bears culpability here, as it has worsened this shortage of medical supplies over the years by cutting the transfer of medicine into Gaza in order to thwart its political rivals in Hamas. While Hamas has imposed lockdown measures and quarantined individuals who have tested positive or have been in contact with those testing positive, these measures are not enough to avoid the nightmare scenario that could occur. The most vital action is that of Israel and Egypt to lift their blockade on Gaza and allow desperately needed medical equipment and supplies to enter the besieged enclave. The U.S. must act as a partner in these efforts to ensure that Israel and Egypt lift the blockade in these extraordinary circumstances.
In 2018, the U.N. reiterated that the blockade “amounts to the collective punishment of the two million residents of Gaza, which is strictly prohibited under the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Israel needs to ensure that Palestinians in Gaza who contract COVID-19 can receive the appropriate care that is currently unavailable in the impoverished region.
To the credit of various activist groups, such as the NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) – Israel, there have been calls within Israel for its health ministry to provide assistance to medical authorities in Gaza, making it clear that, in light of the ongoing health crisis, Israel is responsible, by international law, to provide the requisite means of health care and treatment to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Moreover, Gazan medics have recently received training from their Israeli counterparts in Ashkelon, indicating some degree of cooperation between Israel and Hamas in quelling the virus. However, the best means of preventing an absolute health catastrophe is to lift the blockade immediately. Security threats are often mentioned as the rationale behind the blockade, but permitting the passage of fundamental medical supplies would benefit all parties in the region. Palestinians, Egyptians, and Israelis, who live in such close geographical proximity to one another, would all benefit from such measures to prevent the epidemic from spreading from one community to the next in the blink of an eye.
So far, there are over 50 confirmed cases in the Gaza Strip. The nightmare scenario has not yet been realized, but Gaza, now with a recent uptick in cases, is teetering on the precipice. This virus does not discriminate between Arabs and Jews, and the lifting of the blockade would provide a critical lifeline to individuals both within and around the Gaza Strip. Millions of lives depend on it.
The Stony Brook PHR chapter is a collection of medical students based at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University on Long Island, NY.