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.

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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.”


Jordanians celebrate country’s 74th Independence Day in confident mood

Updated 32 min 48 sec ago

Jordanians celebrate country’s 74th Independence Day in confident mood

  • The festivities followed a three-day lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the killer virus in the country

AMMAN: Jordanians on Monday took to the streets to celebrate their country’s 74th Independence Day amid the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis.

The festivities followed a three-day lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the killer virus in the country, which has so far recorded 708 cases and nine deaths.

Jordan’s population of almost 10 million people, the majority of them in their youth and belonging to different backgrounds and ethnicities which pride themselves on peaceful coexistence, woke up to national flags fluttering throughout the nation as well as on the Google search home page.

The COVID-19 pandemic has instilled a sense of nationalism and unity as well as confidence in the country’s leadership that has not been felt in years.

Minister of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship Mothanna Gharaibeh told Arab News that the virus outbreak had helped to boost Jordan’s digital resilience. “During the crisis, internet traffic grew by 70 percent overnight and yet our resilient internet network was able to take it without any reduction on YouTube or Netflix quality.”

Gharaibeh, the youngest minister in Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s government, said that the private and public sectors had been working together during the COVID-19 emergency to overcome many challenges.

“From security to food delivery and online learning, thousands of Jordanians who were serving global customers continued to deliver quality services from their homes,” he added.

The minister, who was an activist during the short-lived Jordanian spring in 2011, pointed out that despite the economic difficulties caused by the lockdown there had been some positives to emerge from the situation.

“We grew by 700-plus jobs in the last two months by top companies like Cisco, Webhelp, BIGO/IMO, and others relying on the Jordanian solid infrastructure, skills, and work ethics,” he said.

Mahmoud Zawahreh, a young political activist from the city of Zarqa, told Arab News that Jordan was battling on two fronts. “The struggle is against different challenges in dealing with the coronavirus as well as the external political challenges.

“Jordan is being forced to escalate its response due to the dangers from the Israeli intentions to annex Palestinian territories while at the same time it has to deal with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Maamoun Abu Nawwar, a retired two-star air force general, said the people and leaders of Jordan had succeeded in finding a common ground as a nation. “There is a successful trilateral cooperation between the leadership, the army and the people.

“There is a close-knit atmosphere that has been recently articulated with many Jordanians returning from abroad because of the pandemic and realizing how great their country is and that it takes care of its people.”

He added that Jordan faced a difficult future and that some of its challenges were “existential” and required a holistic approach. “Jordan needs to be more inclusive to all regional neighbors to seek their help and protection from Israel.”

He believes that some of its neighbors have not risen to the challenges facing the country. “There is bitterness in Jordan regarding how much it can count on regional powers to stand with it. At times Jordan feels like it has to stand alone because it refuses to take sides in regional disputes,” Abu Nawwar said.

Tareq Khoury, the former head of the Wehdat Football Club and now a member of parliament representing Zarqa, told Arab News that independence required hard decisions including the cancellation of the Wadi Araba Treaty (Jordan-Israel peace accord).

“Independence requires fighting with the occupying enemy who is targeting our holy places and the Jordan Valley,” he said.

Khoury, a businessman who trades with regional countries, said that a much more robust economic relationship was needed.

Samar Nassar, the first female secretary-general of the Jordanian Football Association, said Jordan had been a sports pioneer in the region, championing women empowerment, and using sports for social change.

“We hosted the FIFA under-17 Women’s World Cup, which was the first international tournament of its scale in the Arab world and we hosted the 2018 women’s Asian Cup final.”