Beset by virus, Gaza’s hospitals now struggle with wounded

Beset by virus, Gaza’s hospitals now struggle with wounded
Mohammad Nassar, 31, rests at the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021, where he is receiving treatment for wounds caused by a May 12 Israeli strike that hit while he was driving a motorcycle. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
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Updated 14 May 2021

Beset by virus, Gaza’s hospitals now struggle with wounded

Beset by virus, Gaza’s hospitals now struggle with wounded
  • Last month, Gaza’s daily coronavirus cases and deaths hit record highs
  • In the bomb-scarred territory where the unemployment rate is 50 percent, the need for personal survival often trumps the pleas of public health experts

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Just weeks ago, the Gaza Strip’s feeble health system was struggling with a runaway surge of coronavirus cases. Authorities cleared out hospital operating rooms, suspended nonessential care and redeployed doctors to patients having difficulty breathing.
Then, the bombs began to fall.
This week’s violence between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has killed 103 Palestinians, including 27 children, and wounded 530 people in the impoverished territory. Israeli airstrikes have pounded apartments, blown up cars and toppled buildings.
Doctors across the crowded coastal enclave are now reallocating intensive care unit beds and scrambling to keep up with a very different health crisis: treating blast and shrapnel wounds, bandaging cuts and performing amputations.
Distraught relatives didn’t wait for ambulances, rushing the wounded by car or on foot to Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest. Exhausted doctors hurried from patient to patient, frantically bandaging shrapnel wounds to stop the bleeding. Others gathered at the hospital morgue, waiting with stretchers to remove the bodies for burial.
At the Indonesia Hospital in the northern town of Jabaliya, the clinic overflowed after bombs fell nearby. Blood was everywhere, with victims lying on the floors of hallways. Relatives crowded the ER, crying out for loved ones and cursing Israel.
“Before the military attacks, we had major shortages and could barely manage with the second (virus) wave,” said Gaza Health Ministry official Abdelatif Al-Hajj by phone as bombs thundered in the background. “Now casualties are coming from all directions, really critical casualties. I fear a total collapse.”
Gutted by years of conflict, the impoverished health care system in the territory of more than 2 million people has always been vulnerable. Bitter division between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and a nearly 14-year blockade imposed by Israel with Egypt’s help also has strangled the infrastructure. There are shortages of equipment and supplies such as blood bags, surgical lamps, anesthesia and antibiotics. Personal protection gear, breathing machines and oxygen tanks remain even scarcer.
Last month, Gaza’s daily coronavirus cases and deaths hit record highs, fueled by the spread of a variant that first appeared in Britain, relaxation of movement restrictions during Ramadan, and deepening public apathy and intransigence.
In the bomb-scarred territory where the unemployment rate is 50 percent, the need for personal survival often trumps the pleas of public health experts. While virus testing remains limited, the outbreak has infected more than 105,700 people, according to health authorities, and killed 976.
As cases climbed last year, stirring fears of a health care catastrophe, authorities set aside clinics just for COVID-19 patients. But that changed as airstrikes pummeled the territory.
Nurses at the European Hospital in the town of Khan Younis, frantically needing room for the wounded, moved dozens of virus patients in the middle of the night to a different building, said hospital director Yousef Al-Akkad. Its surgeons and specialists, who had deployed elsewhere for the virus, rushed back to treat head injuries, fractures and abdominal wounds.
If the conflict intensifies, the hospital won’t be able to care for the virus patients, Al-Akkad said.
“We have only 15 intensive care beds, and all I can do is pray,” he said, adding that because the hospital lacks surgical supplies and expertise, he’s already arranged to send one child to Egypt for reconstructive shoulder surgery. “I pray these airstrikes will stop soon.”
At Shifa, authorities also moved the wounded into its 30 beds that had been set aside for virus patients. Thursday night was the quietest this week for the ICU, as bombs had largely fallen elsewhere in Gaza. Patients with broken bones and other wounds lay amid the din of beeping monitors, intercoms and occasional shouts by doctors. A few relatives huddled around them, recounting the chaotic barrage.
“About 12 people down in one airstrike. It was 6 p.m. in the street. Some were killed, including my two cousins and young sister. It’s like this every day,” said 22-year-old Atallah Al-Masri, sitting beside his wounded brother, Ghassan.
Hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia lamented the latest series of blows to Gaza’s health system.
“The Gaza Strip is under siege for 14 years, and the health sector is exhausted. Then comes the coronavirus pandemic,” he said, adding that most of the equipment is as old as the blockade and can’t be sent out for repairs.
Now, his teams already strained by virus cases are treating bombing victims, more than half of whom are critical cases needing surgery.
“They work relentlessly,” he added
To make matters worse, Israeli airstrikes hit two health clinics north of Gaza City on Tuesday. The strikes wreaked havoc on Hala Al-Shawa Health Center, forcing employees to evacuate, and damaged the Indonesian Hospital, according to the World Health Organization. Israel, already under pressure from an International Criminal court investigation into possible war crimes during the 2014 war, reiterated this week that it warns people living in targeted areas to flee. The airstrikes nonetheless have killed civilians and inflicted damage on Gaza’s infrastructure.
The violence also has closed a few dozen health centers conducting coronavirus tests, said Sacha Bootsma, director of WHO’s Gaza office. This week, authorities conducted some 300 tests a day, compared with 3,000 before the fighting began.
The UN Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, ordered staff to stay home from its 22 clinics for their safety. Those now-closed centers had also administered coronavirus vaccines, a precious resource in a place that waited months to receive a limited shipment from the UN-backed COVAX program. Those doses will expire in just a few weeks and get thrown away, with “huge implications for authorities’ ability to mobilize additional vaccines in the future,” Bootsma said.
For the newly wounded, however, the virus remains an afterthought.
The last thing that Mohammad Nassar remembers before an airstrike hit was walking home with a friend on a street. When he came to, he said, “we found ourselves lying on the ground.”
Now the 31-year-old is hooked up to a tangle of tubes and monitors in the Shifa Hospital surgical ward, with a broken right arm and a shrapnel wound in his stomach.


Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours
Updated 15 June 2021

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours
  • Eight boats carrying 634 people, including a five-month-old baby, have arrived at Lampedusa, south of Sicily, since early Tuesday
  • Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, said that almost 1,370 people are now staying at the Imbriacola migrant reception center, a facility designed for 250 occupants

ROME: The Italian island of Lampedusa is struggling to cope after more than 600 migrants landed on its shores in less than 24 hours.

Eight boats carrying 634 people, including a five-month-old baby, from North Africa have arrived at the Mediterranean island, south of Sicily, since early Tuesday, overwhelming migrant facilities and leaving services on the brink of collapse.

More than 380 migrants of various nationalities were crowded onto one fishing boat alone.

“We intercepted a boat at dawn with 85 people on board. A small boat carrying 13 Tunisians landed later, followed by another with 12 men from Morocco and Sudan,” Admiral Roberto Isidori, commander of the Sicilian Coast Guard, told Arab News.

“All those on board were in very bad condition.”

Four other boats carrying at least 100 people reached the island — viewed as a gateway to Europe by migrants — in quick succession.

These groups were in addition to the 442 people who landed on Monday.

Mayor of Lampedusa Salvatore Martello. (AFP)

Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, told Arab News that almost 1,370 people are now staying at the Imbriacola migrant reception center, a facility designed for 250 occupants.

“The conditions facing migrants are very hard as we are experiencing a heatwave,” he added.

Agrigento authorities have arranged for 100 migrants who have been identified and tested negative for COVID-19 to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, an industrial port in the south of Sicily.

“From there we will try to send them to other reception centers, although all the facilities in Sicily and Calabria are already full beyond capacity,” Isidori said.

Other migrants could also be transferred on quarantine ships and patrol boats.

“In Lampedusa, the situation is unsustainable, both for the migrants and the local population, which is showing generosity to those people who endured a long, dangerous trip reach the island,” Urania Papatheu, a Forza Italia senator, told Arab News.

“What is happening is intolerable and unacceptable. It’s time for the EU to take action and hear to the calls for help from the Italian government. Enough with words from the EU. The time has come for facts and solidarity — Italy cannot be left alone.”

About 40 migrants from Algeria who landed on the southern coast of Sardinia also have been transferred to the migrant reception center in Monastir where they will be kept in quarantine.


Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus
Updated 15 June 2021

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus
  • Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary appeared before a British Parliament committee to give evidence on the May 23 diversion
  • The pilot was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Belarus

LONDON: The pilot of a Ryanair flight that was diverted to Belarus last month, leading to the arrest of a dissident Belarusian journalist, had no alternative but to land in Minsk, the airline’s head said Tuesday.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary appeared before a British Parliament committee to give evidence on the May 23 diversion. The scheduled flight from Greece to Lithuania changed course and landed in Belarus’ capital.
Opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, who had been a passenger on the plane, was arrested.
O’Leary told British lawmakers that Minsk air traffic control warned the flight crew of a “credible threat” that if the plane entered Lithuanian airspace, “a bomb on board would be detonated.”
The captain repeatedly asked to communicate with Ryanair’s operations control center, but Minsk air traffic officials told him — falsely — that “Ryanair weren’t answering the phone,” O’Leary said.
“This was clearly a premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules, regulations, safety,” he said.
O’Leary said the pilot was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Belarus instead of the more standard options of Poland or other Baltic countries.
“He wasn’t instructed to do so, but he wasn’t left with any great alternatives,” he told members of the Parliament committee.
After the plane was on the ground, several “unidentified persons” boarded the aircraft with video cameras, according to O’Leary.
They “repeatedly attempted to get the crew to confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk,” the Ryanair executive said. The crew refused to provide such confirmation, he said.
Western countries have called the forced diversion a brazen “hijacking” by Belarus. Outraged European Union leaders swiftly slapped sanctions on the country, including banning Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and telling European airlines to skirt Belarus. UK authorities took similar actions.
O’Leary said he did not support continuing such flight bans in the long term.
“We cannot have a situation whereby airlines, air travel, our customers and our citizens run the risk of being hijacked and diverted under false pretenses,” he said. “But equally, far more UK citizens will be disrupted as a result of long-haul flights between the UK and Asia, for example, now having to fly around Belarus or avoiding Belarusian airspace.”


Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
Updated 15 June 2021

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
  • Single Pfizer dose offers 94% protection against hospitalization
  • England’s chief medical officer hails study as ‘very encouraging indeed’

LONDON: Coronavirus vaccines are about as effective at preventing hospitalization in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 as they are for the earlier Alpha strain, a UK study has found.

The Public Health England (PHE) report found that a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccine results in 94 percent protection against people being admitted to hospital after becoming infected with the Delta variant.

It compares with the 85 percent protection that the same jab offers against the Alpha variant — results that bode well for worldwide vaccination efforts aimed at ending the pandemic. 

Other vaccines delivered similar results. A single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides 71 percent protection against the Delta variant, compared to 76 percent against the Alpha strain, according to the 14,000-case analysis conducted by PHE. 

Following the delivery of a second dose, protection against the Delta variant offered by the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs climbs to 96 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

PHE concluded in its report that vaccination efforts could result in a sharp drop in hospitalization rates, including both Alpha and Delta variant cases.

Prof. Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, hailed the study as “very encouraging indeed.”

An earlier Scottish study found that people who had caught the Delta variant, which is thought to be about 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha strain, were about 85 percent more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who become infected with the earlier variant.


Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates
Updated 15 June 2021

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates
  • Pakistan, which relies heavily on remittances from its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, has primarily used Chinese vaccines

KARACHI, Pakistan: Pakistan has lifted a rule barring the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for people below 40 years old, in a bid to help inoculate people who need to travel for education or jobs abroad, particularly Saudi Arabia, a health official said.
Pakistan, which relies heavily on remittances from its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, has primarily used Chinese vaccines — Sinopharm, CanSinoBio and Sinovac — in its inoculation drive and, till now, only used AstraZeneca for those above 40.
The Saudi authorities have not approved the Chinese shots, so people with only those vaccinations still need to quarantine, which is unaffordable for many, Faisal Sultan, a health adviser to the prime minister, said.
“From today, we have lifted the restriction for use of AstraZeneca for below 40 years,” Sultan told private news channel Geo television on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia has approved four COVID-19 vaccines for arrivals wanting to avoid quarantine, namely AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.
Pakistan has received 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca under the COVAX facility.
Sultan said the government was using diplomatic channels to see if Saudi Arabia would approve Chinese vaccines in future.
As of June 11, 1.3 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people had been fully vaccinated and 3.8 percent had received at least one dose, mostly Sinopharm or Sinovac, official figures show.
Saudi Arabia is the largest source of foreign remittances to Pakistan, which depends on these funds to support its current account given the country’s yawning trade deficit.
In the current financial year, Pakistan received $7 billion in remittances from Saudi Arabia, making up more than a quarter of overall remittances.


Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
Updated 15 June 2021

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
  • After a strict five-week lockdown, authorities in Delhi have fully re-opened shops and malls, and allowed restaurants to have 50% seating
  • Suburban rail networks can run at 50 percent capacity, and offices have been partially reopened

NEW DELHI: Having barely got over a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, India was gripped with alarm on Tuesday over risks of a resurgence as crowds thronged railway stations and shopping malls a day after major cities relaxed curbs on movement.

The capital New Delhi, in the north, and tech hub Bengaluru, in the south, were among the cities that have begun lifting strict lockdowns as the nationwide tally of new infections dropped to its lowest level in more than two months.
After a strict five-week lockdown, authorities in Delhi have fully re-opened shops and malls, and allowed restaurants to have 50 percent seating. Suburban rail networks can run at 50 percent capacity, and offices have been partially reopened.
“Delhi’s top #mall saw a footfall of 19,000 people last weekend- as soon as it reopened. Have we gone totally mad?” Ambrish Mithal, a doctor with a Max HealthCare hospital in New Delhi said on Twitter. “Wait for #COVID19 to explode again- and blame the government, hospitals, country.”
Disease experts have cautioned that a race toward resuming business as usual would compromise vaccination efforts as only about 5 percent of all 950 million eligible adults have been inoculated.
Doctors say Delhi’s near-complete re-opening is concerning. The city’s authorities have said they would reimpose strict curbs if needed.
Thousands died in the capital in May, as oxygen supplies all but vanished and families pleaded on social media over scarce hospital beds. Many died in parking lots, and morgues ran out of space.
Yet, the city government said inoculation centers for people aged between 18 and 44 would start shutting down on Tuesday, as doses were scarce.
Challenge of inoculations, testing
India has been administering an average of 2.4 million shots a day. Health officials say vaccinations need to be at least four times higher to avoid a third wave of infections.
At the height of the second wave in April and May as many as 170,000 people died.
The Delta variant, first identified in India, has accelerated infections. And worryingly, the virus has spread to India’s vast hinterland where two-thirds of the population lives and vaccinations have been even slower.
As restrictions are lifted in big cities, migrant workers have begun returning from the countryside.
In the southern state of Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, media reported large crowds of workers at railway stations.
“Unfortunately, citizens equate the government’s response to reopening, as a victory,” Dr. Vishal Rao, a member of the expert committee on Karnataka’s COVID task force, told Reuters.
Nationwide, India reported 60,471 new COVID-19 infections over the past 24 hours, the lowest since March 31, data from the health ministry showed.
India added 2,726 deaths overnight, taking the overall tally to 377,031.
Both the death toll and the case-load of infections, at 29.57 million, were the second highest after the United States, but experts say the official numbers are a gross underestimate. Only people who have tested positive are counted, and in India testing has been woefully inadequate.
The Times of India on Tuesday reported a staggering 100,000 people were issued fake ‘negative’ reports for COVID-19 infections in the northern city of Haridwar when tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered on the banks of the Ganges river for the ‘Kumbh Mela’, or pitcher festival, in April.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was widely criticized for failing to call off the Kumbh — he only belatedly urged religious leaders to celebrate symbolically — and for addressing large rallies during state elections also in April.
“One in every 4 tests during Kumbh was found fake. That is from just 1 sample collection agency. 8 more to go.” Rijo M John, a professor at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in the southern city of Kochi, said on Twitter.
“Basically, just the tip of the iceberg.”