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)
Short Url
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.


UK trials underway for new virus-testing system

UK trials underway for new virus-testing system
A medical staff member wearing gloves, eye protection and a face mask, tests an NHS worker for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 at a drive-in facility set up in the car park of an IKEA store in Wembley, north-west London. (AFP file photo)
Updated 23 June 2021

UK trials underway for new virus-testing system

UK trials underway for new virus-testing system
  • Machine can detect virus particles in rooms, delivering real-time data on outbreaks
  • Developer hails ‘significant potential for protecting against outbreak of pandemics in future’

LONDON: A new machine that could change the process of testing for viruses, including COVID-19, is being trialed in the UK.

The machine, developed by UK-based company Kromek — which originally made devices to detect chemicals or explosives to help prevent terrorist attacks — can detect COVID-19 particles in the air by taking samples, converting them to liquid and then analyzing them using DNA sequencing.

The results can be provided in real time without the need for scientific intervention or lab testing, and could alert authorities to possible outbreaks more quickly than current testing systems such as individual lateral flow or polymerase chain reaction tests.

Two units have now been installed in the northeast of the UK, one at Teesside International Airport and the other at a local primary school, for a trial period.

Teesside’s Mayor Ben Houchen welcomed the trial, saying he hopes the installations will play a part in reopening the UK economy, especially the air travel sector.

Kronek’s CEO Dr. Arnab Basu said: “Our system can augment the government’s ‘Test and Trace’ system by enabling early identification of potential exposure to the virus while supporting the safe return of visitors to public spaces like mass transport, retail outlets and entertainment venues.”

He added: “We also believe that the continuous monitoring with our system, which can test for a wide spectrum of viruses as well as mutations of COVID-19, has significant potential for protecting against the outbreak of pandemics in the future.”

 


Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain
Updated 23 June 2021

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain
  • In the two decades since the US-led invasion, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed or tortured in targeted assaults by the radical Islamist group

London: Afghan translators who worked with the British military and fear reprisal attacks from the Taliban have arrived in the UK as part of a relocation scheme, campaigners said on Wednesday.
The Sulha Alliance for Afghan interpreters told AFP the first group of translators landed in Birmingham, central England, on Tuesday evening, adding they expected the arrivals would go into Covid quarantine for 14 days.
The government declined to comment on the reports about the departure of the flight over concerns about the safety of the relocating Afghan translators and their families.
At the end of May, Britain announced it would accelerate plans for the relocation of Afghan staff who worked with the military and their families ahead of a planned withdrawal of US-led NATO forces.
Under a relocation scheme for former and current Afghan staff, more than 1,300 workers and their families have been brought to Britain.
More than 3,000 Afghans are expected to be resettled under the accelerated plans, the government said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has said the government has a “moral obligation” to relocate staff and to “recognize the risks they faced in the fight against terrorism and reward their efforts.”
Retired Col. Simon Diggins, the former British attache in Kabul and now a campaigner for the Sulha Alliance, said the translators would receive four months of support after which he said, “the real struggle begins.”
Afghan translators and other local staff who worked with Britain and other NATO members such as the United States, Germany and France have clamoured to be relocated for fear of Taliban reprisals.
In the two decades since the US-led invasion, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed or tortured in targeted assaults by the radical Islamist group.
Even more have been injured in attacks on foreign troops during patrols in armored vehicles.
Campaigners have criticized what they say are confusing relocation schemes by NATO members, which they claim have allowed many translators to fall through the gaps and will struggle to evacuate all necessary staff before the western alliance’s withdrawal.


What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?
Updated 23 June 2021

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?
  • Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible

India said on Wednesday it has found around 40 cases of the Delta coronavirus variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it more transmissible, and advised states to increase testing.
The variant, called "Delta Plus" in India, was first reported in a Public Health England bulletin on June 11.
It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible.
"The mutation K417N has been of interest as it is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage), which was reported to have immune evasion property," India's health ministry said in a statement.
Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
As of June 16, at least 197 cases has been found from 11 countries - Britain (36), Canada (1), India (8), Japan (15), Nepal (3), Poland (9), Portugal (22), Russia (1), Switzerland (18), Turkey (1), the United States (83).
India said on Wednesday around 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, with "no significant increase in prevalence". The earliest case in India is from a sample taken on April 5.
Britain said its first 5 cases were sequenced on April 26 and they were contacts of individuals who had travelled from, or transited through, Nepal and Turkey.
No deaths were reported among the UK and Indian cases.
Studies are ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of vaccines against this mutation.
"WHO is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as we are doing for other Variants of Concern with additional mutations," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"For the moment, this variant does not seem to be common, currently accounting for only a small fraction of the Delta sequences ... Delta and other circulating Variants of Concern remain a higher public health risk as they have demonstrated increases in transmission," it said.
But India's health ministry warned that regions where it has been found "may need to enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination."
There are worries Delta Plus would inflict another wave of infections on India after it emerged from the world's worst surge in cases only recently.
"The mutation itself may not lead to a third wave in India - that also depends on COVID-appropriate behaviour, but it could be one of the reasons," said Tarun Bhatnagar, a scientist with the state-run Indian Council for Medical Research.


New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
Updated 23 June 2021

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
  • The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: After enjoying nearly four months without any community transmission of the coronavirus, New Zealanders were on edge Wednesday after health authorities said an infectious traveler from Australia had visited over the weekend.
New Zealand has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic and continues to pursue an elimination strategy.
The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths. But its vaccination campaign has been far slower than in most developed countries, with just 13 percent of the population having gotten their first dose.
Although there were no immediate cases confirmed as a result of the traveler’s visit from Sydney to New Zealand’s capital Wellington, authorities were asking people at more than a dozen locations to self-isolate for two weeks and get tested.
They also imposed physical distancing requirements in the Wellington region and restricted crowd sizes to 100 from Wednesday evening through Sunday.
“I’m confident that if we do all the things we have done in the past, if people do what is asked of them, we will reduce the risk,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health.
Bloomfield said the traveler was linked to a Sydney outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant that originated in India.
The outbreak in Australia’s largest city has grown to 31 cases and led to a tightening of restrictions
It began last week when a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive. He was not vaccinated and is suspected to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew.
Residents living in the worst-affected parts of Sydney have been told they can only travel outside the city for essential reasons. Authorities have also made masks compulsory outside homes and limited the number of household visitors to five.
New Zealand has stopped quarantine-free travel from the Australian state of New South Wales for at least three days.
New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free travel bubble in April, although it has been temporarily halted several times as Australia has dealt with small community outbreaks.
Health authorities said the traveler had visited New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa as well as a number of restaurants, stores and tourist spots. Te Papa announced it was closed and would provide updates as the situation unfolded.
Health authorities said the traveler visited Wellington from Saturday through Monday before returning to Australia and testing positive for COVID-19. They said four close contacts of the traveler were self-isolating and had all tested negative for the virus.


Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
Updated 23 June 2021

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
  • The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights group Global Witness says.
A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and “like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report, published late Tuesday.
That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm in the country.
Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that break our rules.”
Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks, Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.
“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan while she worked there.
The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.
Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned down a village.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social media management platform NapoleonCat.
“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many people in the country, Facebook effectively is the Internet.
On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians, Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no history of liking or following specific topics and searched for “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search results to show pages, and selected the top result — a military fan page whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”
Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of interference in last year’s election and support of violence against civilians.
A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters who vandalize surveillance cameras.
“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you are not afraid to die, keep going.”
Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates our policies to help keep people safe.”
Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the “very basics” of its own guidelines.
“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are designed, trained, and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,” said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness. “This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”