In devastated Gaza, fear of bombs outweighs coronavirus risk

In devastated Gaza, fear of bombs outweighs coronavirus risk
Displaced children in Gaza City play at a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, where many families have sought refuge. (AFP)
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Updated 20 May 2021

In devastated Gaza, fear of bombs outweighs coronavirus risk

In devastated Gaza, fear of bombs outweighs coronavirus risk
  • The pandemic had already placed Gaza’s health system under massive strain

GAZA CITY, Dubai: Like thousands of others in Gaza, Umm Jihad Ghabayin fled home with her children from Israeli bombardment without taking any essentials — let alone a facemask against the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

As entire tower blocks tumble, reduced to smoking rubble by bombs, the immediate danger of devastating airstrikes has replaced for Gazans the less obvious — but still deadly — risk of COVID-19.

“Of course I’m afraid of catching coronavirus, but it will be easier (to cope with) than Israeli missiles,” mother-of-six Ghabayin said. “Missiles kill us,” one of her children added, his feet covered in dust. After fleeing her home, Ghabayin has found shelter at a UN-supported school where she feels safer from strikes — but acknowledges the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is high.

“Since we arrived on Friday, we haven’t showered once,” 34-year-old Ghabayin said. “The water is cut off for hours, and there is a total lack of hygiene.”

In the schools-turned-shelters, and on Gaza’s bomb-ravaged streets, few are thinking about wearing masks.

“Israel’s continuing attacks are undermining our efforts against coronavirus,” said Ashraf Al-Qudra, Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesman.

Gaza, under Israeli blockade since 2007, recorded few COVID-19 cases in the early months of the pandemic. In an impoverished society with poor health infrastructure, containing the virus proved difficult to control.

Before the military escalation, the rate of positive tests was among the highest in the world, at 28 percent, and hospitals were overwhelmed by patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) says over 100,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Gaza, of whom over 930 have died.

Adnan Abou Hasna, a spokesman UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said that the schools transformed into shelters for the more than 40,000 displaced Gazans could become coronavirus “epicenters.”

While hand washing stations and other sanitary facilities had been set up, he admitted these measures were inadequate.

Before the military escalation between Hamas and Israel a week ago, authorities in Gaza tested an average of some 1,600 people per day.

The pandemic had already placed Gaza’s health system under massive strain, now buckling as it tries to treat the more than 1,500 people injured by Israeli strikes, according to ministry statistics.

Units previously dedicated to coronavirus patients have had to reorganize to cope with the influx of casualties.

Salem Al-Attar, 38, sheltering in a UNRWA school after his home was destroyed in a strike, said he feared the tightly packed conditions could spread the virus swiftly.

“The situation is disastrous,” he said, a father of six.

On the other side of school courtyard, Umm Mansour Al-Qurum cried after receiving a phone call from a neighbor that half of her house had been destroyed in a strike. “The situation is unbearable — coronavirus and the war at the same time,” said the 65-year-old, who fled the bombing with 30 members of her extended family. “I can’t take it anymore.”

The bloodshed has unleashed a chorus of voices across Gulf Arab states that are fiercely critical of Israel and emphatically supportive of Palestinians.

In Bahrain, civil society groups signed a letter urging the government to expel the Israeli ambassador. In Kuwait, protesters held two rallies and are demanding permission to hold more. In Qatar, the government allowed hundreds to protest over the weekend as Hamas’ top leader delivered a speech. In the UAE, some have donned the black-and-white checkered Palestinian keffiyeh on Instagram while others have tweeted under hashtags supportive of Palestinians.

Mira Al-Hussein, an Emirati Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University, said Emiratis feel taken care of and valued by their government, which provides citizens with strong social safety nets.

She changed her Twitter handle in support of Palestinians since the fighting broke out, and has used the platform to slam Israel’s policies and highlight the atrocities of the war.

Bader Al-Saif, a Kuwait University professor, said “the sheer un-proportionality” of the conflict has pushed many people to speak out across the Gulf.

“For Israelis to feel secure, they need to feel that they are accepted,” Al-Saif said. “That feeling of acceptance cannot be complete without them dealing with the Palestinian issue.”