Gaza’s first community COVID-19 cases are only the latest crisis in a pan-regional humanitarian emergency affecting Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory and Lebanon
With the discovery this week of community-transmitted cases of COVID-19 in Gaza, for the first time in its 35 years Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is responding to a humanitarian emergency among Palestinian communities across all three areas of operation: the West Bank, Gaza and the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. The agency warns that without a significant boost of international financial and diplomatic support, this multi-layered, pan-regional crisis constitutes an existential threat to the health and wellbeing of the Palestinian people.
A HEALTHCARE EMERGENCY ACROSS GAZA, THE WEST BANK, AND LEBANON
On 24 August the Ministry of Health in Gaza declared that it has discovered the first cases of COVID-19 outside of quarantine centres, with four individuals infected within the densely-populated refugee camp of Maghazi. A 48-hour curfew has been declared as local authorities scramble to identify and isolate any further cases in the community and prevent further infections. On 26 August, nine new cases were identified in Gaza as the infection continues to spread.
These cases raise fears of the “nightmare scenario” of a widespread outbreak of the disease beyond the coping capacity of Gaza’s healthcare system, long on the brink of collapse, and a society that is suffocating under illegal collective punishment in the form of Israel’s 13-year closure and blockade.
“If we were already struggling to keep the most vulnerable people in Gaza alive, what hope do we have in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak? Gaza simply doesn’t have the resources to respond.” – Gaza Director Fikr Shalltoot
This development comes amid Israel’s closure of the Karem Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) crossing since 11 August, suspending the import of fuel, which has caused Gaza’s only power plant to close down and left residents with as little as four hours of electricity per day. Hospitals are now heavily reliant on backup generator power to keep services running and critical patients alive. Frequent power cuts are causing damage to essential equipment such as incubators for new-born babies. There is less than one month’s supply of 45% of essential medicines and 31% of medical disposables left on shelves. With almost half of the population (46%) living below the poverty line and 68% of households food insecure, lockdown measures needed to contain the disease also threaten the welfare of many vulnerable families.
Fikr Shalltoot, MAP’s Director of Programmes in Gaza said: “Even before this news, Gaza’s health sector was running out of basic life-saving medical supplies. Last week I received a call from the Ministry of Health warning that without an urgent shipment of surfactant – a drug for treating babies suffering breathing difficulties – the lives of tens of new-borns in neonatal intensive care units are at grave risk.”
“If we were already struggling to keep the most vulnerable people in Gaza alive, what hope do we have in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak? Gaza simply doesn’t have the resources to respond. Only through a significant injection of international support can we avert catastrophe in Gaza.”
In the occupied West Bank, Israel’s de facto annexation, settlement expansion, home demolitions and settler and military violence against Palestinians continue unabated. Palestinian communities in Area C are suffering worsening humanitarian conditions as their livelihoods, movement and access to essential resources and services are restricted. A surge in COVID-19 cases is compounding threats to health and lives, particularly in the Hebron area that is the current epicentre of the pandemic in Palestine. More than 25,000 cases have now been reported in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, with over 500 cases being reported each day.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the devastating explosion in Beirut on 4 August compounded the country’s severe economic and political crisis. Currency devaluation, unemployment, power cuts and food shortages disproportionately affect marginalised people including Palestinian refugee communities, driving families further into poverty and food insecurity. With several major Beirut hospitals damaged in the blast, others, including those run by MAP’s partners, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, are having to deal with increased patient load amid a chronic shortage of basic resources.
On top of this, COVID-19 is now spreading rapidly in the country. There has been a 180% increase in cases since the explosion and more cases were detected in August so far than all months combined since the pandemic began. Healthcare resources are dwindling and lives endangered, with the country reporting more than 500 new cases every day. There have been 242 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths so far among Palestinian refugees, though MAP fears the virus may soon spread rapidly amid the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the country’s refugee camps.
HEALTH NEEDS THREATEN TO OUTSTRIP AVAILABLE FUNDING
Since March, MAP has been responding to the coronavirus pandemic across all areas by prioritising infection prevention and containment. MAP has provided hygiene kits to quarantined families, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for Palestinian health workers, and antiseptics and disinfectants to help prevent further spread of the disease. MAP is also supplying out-of-stock medicines and disposables to Gaza’s hospitals, including for treatment of respiratory diseases.
“The international community must urgently increase their aid to the Palestinian people and to humanitarian organisations responding on the ground”- Programme Director Dr Andy Ferguson
In response to the Beirut explosion, MAP is supplying Palestinian Red Crescent Society hospitals with essential medical provisions including surgical, anaesthetic and X-ray supplies, lifesaving fluids and antibiotics and antiseptics/disinfectants. In Hebron, we have partnered with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society to provide a mobile clinic for marginalised communities in the Hebron area.
With Palestinian communities across the region hit by multiple simultaneous crises, demands for healthcare and other essential services threaten to rapidly outstrip what local and international organisations can provide. Despite the immediate and generous response from individual supporters and members of the public, MAP and other local and international actors are struggling to provide all that is needed. An immediate boost in humanitarian funding from states, including the UK, is needed to stop this pan-regional healthcare emergency spiralling out of control.
Funding is needed to help Palestinian communities respond to the pandemic and to provide essential medical supplies and training for other urgent and ongoing healthcare needs. A concerted multilateral diplomatic effort is also needed to address the chronic injustices of occupation, displacement, discrimination and blockade that have long undermined Palestinian health, dignity and healthcare.
MAP Director of Programmes Dr Andy Ferguson said: “In the midst of a global pandemic, our teams and partners on the ground are also having to respond to multiple man-made crises that threaten to overwhelm Palestinian healthcare systems and to rapidly drive down health and wellbeing status of Palestinians across the region. The international community must urgently increase their aid to the Palestinian people and to humanitarian organisations responding on the ground, in order to give them a fighting chance to avert total calamity.”