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Palestinian Americans Send PA Help to Fight COVID-19
Upon release after 14 days in quarantine in the al-Savfe Elementary School, as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, 321 Palestinians are welcomed by relatives, in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on April 5, 2020. (Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Palestinian Americans Send PA Help to Fight COVID-19

Donors dispatch test kits, protective equipment to West Bank; meanwhile, Israel scours the world for supplies

The AFRHSN Medical Mission, a Palestinian American initiative based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has donated much-needed equipment to the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry in the face of the global coronavirus crisis.

The AFRHSN (American Federation of Ramallah Human Services Network) Medical Mission, based in Redwood City, California, launched the Palestine COVID-19 Relief Fund in mid-March to raise donations, mostly from US-based Palestinian organizations and individuals.

The NGO has dispatched more than 300,000 pieces of medical equipment to the PA Health Ministry, including 10,000 COVID-19 test kits as wells as masks, other protective gear and disinfectants.

The AFRHSN Medical Mission has raised about $190,000 of its $1 million target. The first shipment of $120,000 worth of material has reached Israel after receiving all the required approvals.

Bajis Katwan, a US-based Palestinian businessman who is a leader of the Palestine COVID-19 Relief Fund initiative, told The Media Line that the AFRHSN Medical Mission launched the initiative after a group of Palestinians working in the medical sector in the US met a few weeks ago and decided to help their homeland with its scarce resources and densely packed population.

“We contacted the Palestinian health minister to receive the shipment after a two-member logistics team worked on getting approval from the Israeli side with the help of the Heart of Mercy organization, which played a big role in facilitating this,” Katwan said.

He said that several NGOs have been working along with the AFRHSN Medical Mission on the initiative and contributed to the fund as well, including the American Federation of Ramallah − Palestine and most US-based Palestinian organizations, chief among them the AFRHSN Medical Mission itself with a donation of $100,000, the Palestinian American Coalition (PAC) that matched the first $25,000 that was donated, and the Hanan Refugee Relief Group with $10,000.

“As part of the call to action, I decided to match the first $100,000. After the PAC commitment, I added it anyway, to encourage more people to donate,” Katwan said

Abeer Mashni, a logistics coordinator for the Palestine COVID-19 Relief Fund based in Ramallah, told The Media Line that two shipments arrived in Israel on Sunday and would be sent to the PA by Monday or Tuesday, after completing procedures.

The current state of international “aviation isn’t helping at all in terms of shipments. What we used to ship in 48 hours, now takes at least 10 days,” Mashni said.

Tareef Ashour, spokesperson for the PA Health Ministry, told The Media Line that the Palestinian territories have quite limited supplies of coronavirus test kits, “but it isn’t possible to determine when they will run out, because it depends on the number of suspected cases of infection. … As we speak, dozens of tests are being performed in various cities.”

Ashour stressed that there were not enough kits to test everyone suspected of infection with COVID-19, but only those who scored highest in the health ministry’s survey that collected information to help doctors decide whom to test and whom to send to quarantine.

“We have more than 40,000 workers in Israel; we don’t have the capabilities to test them all, so we rely of their scores to decide, but a high temperature is a symptom we take into consideration,” he added.

Palestinian hospitals have 205 ventilators, but the ministry has been promised that about 250 more are on the way from China and the US, paid for by donors in the Palestinian diaspora.

Raja’i Khoury, a doctor and leader of the Palestine COVID-19 Relief Fund initiative who is part of the AFRHSN Medical Mission, told The Media Line that due to the global shortage, the first aid shipment didn’t include any ventilators, but the next ones will.

“In the shipments that were sent we provided: three types of face masks including face shields, in addition to body protection, gloves, test kits and other medical supplies, but that doesn’t cover the Palestinian needs,” he said.

Khoury said the goal was to keep raising donations during the crisis to help Palestinians. “The novel coronavirus has started the biggest war ever, where medical supplies are critical, but our people also need help with food, water, electricity and other expenses. We started with supporting the medical sector as we work in that field, but other sectors need help as well,” he said.

Non-Palestinians contributed to the fund as well, he said. “We hope that part of the shipments go to Gaza, which doesn’t have anything because of the 13-year blockade,” Khoury said.

Ashraf Qudwa, spokesperson for Gaza’s Health Ministry, told The Media Line that the Strip might run out of COVID-19 test kits this week. “What we have will last for a few more days, depending on the cases we receive,” he said.

Qudwa clarified that early on, the World Health Organization facilitated the entry of test kits and other medical supplies, but that there weren’t enough of them. “Currently, we only test those who suffer from respiratory symptoms and high temperature. We are supposed to test all those coming from abroad, but we don’t have enough kits. Since March 3, we have tested about 1,150 people suspected of infection, and quarantined more than 1,900.”

He said the ministry has asked the PA and the WHO to send test kits and 100 ventilators, as Gaza has only 63 of the latter, with 80% of them already in use. “We asked for [equipment for] 140 new intensive care beds; we currently have 78, and most of them are being used by patients who fell ill before the crisis,” Qudwa said.

As of Monday morning, there have been 237 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories (a rate of 46 cases per million population), including 12 cases in Gaza. One person has died and 25 have recovered to date. In Israel, there have been 8,611 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (a rate of 995 cases per million population). Fifty-one people have died and 585 have recovered to date.

Dr. Asher Salmon, foreign press spokesperson at the Israeli Health Ministry, told The Media Line that Israel doesn’t have enough COVID-19 test kits but is working to get more. “What we mostly lack now is PCR [polymerase chain reaction] solution, which is essential to performing PCR testing. We are looking all over the world for it, but as you can imagine, there’s a big shortage of medical supplies from all over the world.”

Salmon said the ministry’s goal was to acquire an additional 1,000 ventilators “but we are very far from our goal. We are struggling with resolving the issue of testing as well as looking for more ventilators from all over the world. I don’t have a precise number but there are about 3,000 ventilators in the field, and in our reserve, there are another 1,000, maybe more now.”

He said that if the situation did not get much worse, the ministry would be able to manage, but if the outbreak grew wider, there would be a major problem in Israel. “If we’re looking at incidences right now, we believe we can contain the situation with our current capacity. However, we are not going to rely on that happening. We are going to do whatever we can to purchase more ventilators.”

Salmon explained that due to the limited number of test kits, the ministry was testing only those who have symptoms and were in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, as well as “those who suffer from high temperature combined with shortness of breath or a cough.”

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