As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion

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The Ministry of Health has warned that Gaza’s infrastructure is poor owing to years of restrictions. (AFP)
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The World Health Organization has provided protective equipment to Palestinian health workers. (AFP)
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Updated 26 March 2020

As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion

  • Police have announced the closure of cafes, restaurants and markets across the coastal enclave
  • At least 1,271 Palestinians have been admitted to 18 quarantine centers set up by the Ministry of Health

GAZA CITY: As the deadly coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreads across the Middle East, relative isolation might seem to be an advantage in keeping a community safe.

However, as the recent confirmation by Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Ministry of Heath of two COVID-19 cases in the enclave demonstrates, no population in the Middle East, or indeed the wider world, can afford to assume it is invulnerable.

Even before the global pandemic hit, the public health system in the densely populated Palestinian territory was fragile.

FASTFACT

 

At least 1,271 Palestinians have been admitted to quarantine centers established in the Gaza Strip.

This was only to be expected after the long years of conflict with Israel, a security cum economic blockade since 2007, and the failure of the competing Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to bury the hatchet.

Now, the tension is palpable. The police have announced the closure of cafes, restaurants and markets across the Gaza Strip. Gatherings in wedding halls and for prayers in mosques have been suspended.

The expectation is that restrictions will increase if more infections are reported.

In Israel, where the number of infections has crossed the 2,000 mark, authorities have adopted drastic measures to limit the movement of Palestinians entering the country.

The government body in charge of coordinating Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories has said all border crossings to Gaza and the West Bank will remain shut.

Anecdotal evidence would indicate a spike in demand for food and essential items across Gaza since the announcement of the two COVID-19 cases.

“We did not find medicines in hospitals before the last crisis hit Gaza,” said Ibrahim Aydiya, 44, a grocery store owner in Gaza City. “I don't know what will happen if infections spread inside the territory.”

According to Aydiya, there has been a significant increase in purchases by Gaza residents since the beginning of the month.

“I do not know what the poor are doing in Gaza, but since the announcement of the two cases, people have become increasingly interested in stocking up,” he said.

Overall, the Palestinian territories have recorded 62 COVID-19 cases, all in the Fatah-run West Bank, except the two in Gaza. At least 16 of the patients are said to have recovered.




Palestinian artists Samah Said (L) and Dorgham Krakeh paint N95 protective masks for a project raising awareness about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Gaza City on March 24, 2020. (AFP / MOHAMMED ABED)

The Ministry of Health has set up 18 quarantine centers in the Gaza Strip, since the beginning of March. All arrivals from the Rafah and Erez crossings are placed in quarantine for 14 days as a precaution.

At least 1,271 Palestinians have been admitted to these centers, according to official sources.

On March 22, the Ministry of Health said the two Palestinians in question had recently returned from Pakistan through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza and were placed under quarantine after they showed COVID-19 symptoms.

Many among Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants are not surprised that despite their insular existence, they are not immune from the unfolding global health crisis.

“It is impossible for Gaza to be completely isolated, and the spread of the infection across the world has been very fast,” said Fathi Lafi, a 52-year-old Palestinian.

“We do not live alone in this world. Our exposure to the coronavirus risk was limited, and this bought us time, but the virus has now reached our community.”

On the question of what Gaza can do under the circumstances, Lafi’s response summarized the attitude of a large swathe of Gaza’s population.

“The world does not care about us,” he told Arab News. “We should only care about ourselves.”

Help and advice are on hand, however. The World Health Organization (WHO) has assisted the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health in the form of protective clothing for health workers to handle people infected with COVID-19.

In Gaza, the agencies dealing with public health have been supplied test kits for infection detection.

Speaking to Arab News, Abdel Nasser Soboh, director of the WHO office in Gaza, said the UN is providing assistance to health authorities in the territory as it grapples with the emergency.

He said his office is in the process of providing ventilators and intensive care beds to support the health sector as it prepares for the worst-case scenario.

According to Medhat Abbas, director-general of primary care at the Ministry of Health, the state of the medical infrastructure is precarious owing to years of restrictions.

“Over the past several years, we have called on international institutions and the world to help us, but the response has been limited,” he told Arab News.

“We are in a difficult situation. Our capabilities are limited. However, we are in a state of emergency now and, so far, things are under control.”




The territory’s first cases arrived in Gaza from Pakistan. (AFP)

Abbas said Gaza has 40 Intensive Care Unit beds in normal times, adding that in a public health emergency, the number could be increased to a maximum of 100.

Referring to the two confirmed patients, he said: “They are in quarantine. All those who were in contact with them have been quarantined. There is no need for panic at this stage.”

He cautioned, nevertheless, that if the situation worsens, Gaza will need the world’s help.

“We can deal with existing cases and limited numbers, but if the outbreak intensifies, as is happening in some countries, we will need international intervention,” Abbas said.

It is not just the restrictions imposed on the movement of individuals and goods, including medical resources, that have weakened Gaza’s health defenses.

Chronic energy shortage has contributed to reductions in the availability and quality of health services.

Gaza’s health sector is plagued by a shortage of medical equipment and supplies, including stocks of antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs.

The problems have been compounded by the protracted rivalry between Hamas and Fatah and their failure to forge a common strategy to deal with crises.

According to a WHO report, “social determinants of health” have seriously deteriorated in Gaza.

Groundwater supplies are “essentially unfit for human consumption.” A large portion of untreated wastewater flows directly into the Mediterranean Sea. A crippled economy also weighs heavily on the population.

Jamie McGoldrick, Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said the coronavirus outbreak is a “big worry” for the UN.

“We are fearful because of the conditions on the ground, because of overcrowding and because of the nature of the system that supports people who might be affected,” McGoldrick has been quoted by UN News as saying.

“We don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak.”




The UN has warned that Gaza’s high poverty rate could lead to a health crisis. (AFP)

According to McGoldrick, the major issues include a lack of funding and the ability to source critical materials in the global market at the right time.

Referring specifically to personal protective material, testing kits and ventilators, McGoldrick said: “There is huge shortage globally, and if we don’t have the money to purchase in the region, it would be a problem.

“We are in close cooperation with the Israelis over buying from Israel.”

Gaza’s Ministry of Economy has given assurances that current stocks of essential items in Gaza’s shops and markets are sufficient to last weeks.

“Except for shortages in local markets attributable to liquidity issues, goods are still flowing as usual from the Karm Abu Salem crossing,” Abdel-Fattah Mousa, spokesman for the Ministry of Economy, said.

Even so, Gaza is rife with fear and anxiety as the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the region.

Sumaiya Al-Danaf, 50, who buys groceries from Aydiya’s store in Gaza City, spoke perhaps for many when she said she is concerned about an outbreak in Gaza.

“The government in Gaza is weak and is incapable of dealing with a crisis due to the blockade and divisions,” she told Arab News.

“We have been in isolation for 14 years. The world has suffered from just 14 days of quarantine. It is the unjust world that does not feel for us.”


Beirut blast brings fresh misery to displaced Syrians in Lebanon

Updated 49 min 51 sec ago

Beirut blast brings fresh misery to displaced Syrians in Lebanon

  • Of the 177 deaths confirmed so far, 43 were Syrians working at the Port of Beirut on the evening of August 4
  • Syrians’ savings in Lebanese banks have drastically lost value since the start of the economic and financial crisis

DUBAI: It was 2012, and Lina Attar Ajami was spending the summer in Canada when a bomb went off near her neighborhood of Rawda in Damascus.

Her father called her immediately and told her not to return to Syria. “You must go to Beirut and find a house and make your life there,” Ajami recalled being told.

She followed his instructions and moved to an apartment in Saifi Village, an upscale neighborhood within walking distance of Gemmayze, the beating heart of Beirut.

“You escape a country for security. You escape a war of nine years in order to give your children security and not let them be exposed to the atrocities of war. But this — the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut — is worse than anything my family went through during the Syrian civil war,” Ajami told Arab News by phone from Beirut.

Even before the blast, Lebanon was in a state of free fall following months of economic and political turmoil marked by mass unemployment, hyperinflation and social unrest.

But the devastation caused by the blast has wreaked unprecedented havoc on the Lebanese capital, leaving an estimated 300,000 homeless and an even larger number of people in need of assistance of some kind.

Of the 177 deaths confirmed so far, 43 were Syrians working at the Port of Beirut, according to a statement from the Syrian Embassy in the Lebanese capital. The UN refugee agency has put the Syrian toll at 34, of which eight bodies are still missing.

The workers were refugees, earning daily as little as 50,000 Lebanese pounds ($33). Their bodies, like their existence up until Aug. 4, are unlikely to be unaccounted for.

Each of their families, living in the blast-devastated capital of a crisis-torn country, has likely lost not only its breadwinner but also its livelihood.

A picture of victims is displayed inside their damaged apartment facing the port of Beirut following the cataclysmic explosion. (AFP)

Ajami’s 12-year-old daughter was severely wounded in the blast. “We live on the 11th floor, so I could see the port. I heard my daughter screaming in the salon. I ran there and found her covered in blood. Blood was all over the walls,” she said.

Ajami’s husband carried his daughter downstairs and dashed off in search of a hospital, but they were full beyond capacity. “People were getting into fights just to get their loved ones admitted,” she said. “It was hell.”

The couple decided to take their daughter to south Beirut, where they found a hospital willing to admit her. She has since undergone two surgeries and is currently recovering.

Volunteers distribute aid supplies to those affected by the cataclysmic explosion in Beirut's port area, on August 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

“There’s nothing more disturbing than thinking you’re in the safety of your home and a sudden blast takes away all the security you thought you had in your adopted country,” Ajami said. “As Syrians, this is our second loss. It’s beyond description.”

The Syrians currently in Lebanon, estimated at 910,000, are a mixture of registered and unregistered refugees, as well as migrant workers and others.

Those who fled Syria because of the civil war kept most, if not all, of their life savings in banks in Lebanon.

The value of their deposits has eroded drastically since the start of the economic and financial crisis.

FASTFACT

Syrians in Lebanon

* At least 34 Beirut blast victims were Syrian workers.

* Lebanon hosts 890,000 Syrian refugees.

* Two-thirds of the refugees live below poverty line.

* Lebanon’s estimated population is 6 million.

“Syrians relocated to Lebanon and placed all their wealth in Lebanese banks, knowing that no other country would agree to open bank accounts for Syrians,” said Ajami. “Their savings have dwindled in real terms as a result of the stringent capital controls.”

According to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, the Syrian government estimated in January the total amount belonging to Syrians in Lebanese banks at about $45 billion — roughly a quarter of deposits held by Lebanese banks.

That said, many Syrians are content with having survived the blast that shattered Beirut. “I was sure by the time someone asked about me I’d be dead,” said Haidara M., a kickboxing instructor who left Syria in 2016 in search of a better life in the Lebanese capital.

At the time of the blast, caused by a long-neglected stock of ammonium nitrate, Haidara was in the bathroom of his apartment.

Lina Attar Ajami’s apartment, where her 12-year-old daughter was severely wounded in the blast. (Supplied: Lina Attar Ajami)

Freeing himself of the debris that fell on him, he ran out into the middle of a street in the hope that someone would help him. “I’m afraid of dying in a country without any family to bury me,” he told Arab News.

A Syrian who lives in the Lebanese capital and works with an international NGO said: “Syrians living in Beirut have been affected on an emotional level. They fled Syria to Lebanon to live in a safer place, but are now trying to leave Lebanon for the same reason.”

He added: “We still don’t have clear information regarding Syrians living in Lebanon who’ve been affected by the blast. No one knows the names of the 43 Syrians who died at the port.”

One Syrian national who has returned to Damascus following the explosion is Rana Tamimi, who specializes in marketing and communications.

She was allowed to cross the border into Syria after she took a COVID-19 test (for which she paid 150,000 Lebanese pounds) in Beirut and got a negative result.

Caption

“I moved to Beirut from Damascus eight years ago after a big explosion behind my house in Damascus,” she told Arab News.

“There was a lot of fear in the streets then and I had to leave. The effect of the explosion that happened in Beirut was equal to the sum of the horrors of eight years of war.”

Nimat Bizri, a half Algerian, half Syrian woman married to a Lebanese man who has lived in Lebanon for 24 years, said: “Since the blast, I feel helpless and depressed … The border to Syria has remained closed for three months now due to COVID-19. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Bizri runs the Social Support Society, an NGO founded in 2006 that provides quality programs and opportunities to Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. It caters to 2,500 students spread over five centers located in various villages.

But Syrians face an altogether new challenge in the wake of the destruction in Beirut. Cases have come to light of discrimination against migrants and refugees trying to access emergency aid.

“No support is being given to Palestinian and Syrian refugees who’ve been working and living in Beirut,” said Bizri. “The Lebanese people haven’t been giving them support since the explosion.”

Dalia Al-Ogaily, a Syrian-Iraqi resident of Beirut who previously lived in Syria, recently joined a group of friends who had volunteered to do social work in different parts of the city.

Survivors of Beirut's August 4 blast are still in shock over a disaster that disfigured their city. The earth-shaking explosion killed 171 people and wounded more than 6,000, a sickening blow to a country already in crisis. (AFP)

“On our way to downtown Beirut, we spotted the Banin Charity Association in action so we offered to help,” she told Arab News.

“Initially they allowed us to help people in the neighborhood by interviewing them and assessing their needs. However, after a few hours, when we ran into a Syrian woman in need, the coordinator of the charity told us not to help her because, according to its policy, it’s meant to help only Lebanese.”

The incident sparked controversy on social media that culminated in the resignation of Fadi Al-Khateeb, a renowned Lebanese footballer, from his position as the Banin Charity Association’s goodwill ambassador.

Complaints of discrimination against non-Lebanese in aid distribution also prompted Alexandra Tarzikhan, a Syrian human rights lawyer based in Chicago, to comment: “The blast didn’t discriminate when it chose whose lives to take and which houses to destroy.”

In recent years, Gulf Cooperation Council member countries have become the home of many Arab families fed up with their home countries’ poverty, corruption, sectarian politics and conflict.

Firefighters carry the coffin of their colleague Joe Noun, who was killed in Beirut's massive blast, during his funeral at the fire station in Karantina neighbourhood near the port on August 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Syrians and Lebanese are among the tens of thousands who have chosen to start a new life in the UAE, drawn by the lure of peace and financial security.

Leaving his home in Damascus in 2012 to escape the war, Alaa Krimed lived for two years in Beirut before moving to Dubai.

Now the Syrian-Palestinian is the artistic director of the Sima Dance Co. in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.

“I loved Beirut, but I also hated Beirut because I struggled a lot there,” he told Arab News, recalling the need to reapply for residency papers every three months. “The people are wonderful but the government is corrupt, and this is why I moved from Beirut to Dubai.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor