Palestinian Medical Officials Fear Disaster If Virus Spreads
Ventilators, test kits, protective equipment all in short supply
The already weak Palestinian health sector and economy are in no condition to deal with a major epidemic, officials say. The only hope is that preventive measures will prove sufficient to stop the novel coronavirus from running rampant in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
As of Monday, 449 Palestinians have been infected with COVID-19. Of these, three have died and 71 have recovered.
Tareef Ashour, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry, told The Media Line that Palestinian capabilities were limited and therefore strong preventive measures were taken from the very beginning in an effort to avoid a medical crisis. “Palestine was the first country in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which consists of 22 countries, to close universities, schools, churches and mosques, as we know our resources are modest,” he said.
Ashour said that since the arrival of COVID-19 to the Palestinian territories on March 5, the ministry had designated locations for sorting [patients], quarantine and treatment in every Palestinian governorate. “As a county under occupation, even before the global coronavirus pandemic, we lacked medical supplies and staff. However, the ministry decided to use the greatest portion of its budget to face the virus.”
He added that all elective operations and examinations were canceled, in order to step up efforts against the COVID-19 crisis, “So far, thanks to the precautionary measures, the situation is contained, but we definitely need more ventilators,” he said.
Ashour stressed that Palestinian medical staff also lacked sufficient personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits. “We have huge shortages, but we have been promised shipments from China and Palestinian American charities and churches. If we had more test kits, we would have been able to test more people. For instance, in this [al-Shuhada Military] hospital, we have 50 beds, and six beds for the ICU unit, while the Nablus Governorate is home to about 400,000 citizens.”
Moreover, the head of the Palestinian Doctors’ Syndicate warned that hospital personnel were at risk because of the lack of equipment and appropriate preventive measures.
Ashour said that while the situation in the West Bank was still under control, in the case of a widespread virus outbreak, the situation could turn dire. “If the number of cases infected with COVID-19 in Israel is replicated here, it will be a real crisis.”
He said the ministry was relying on universal preventive protocols in dealing with the bodies of patients who died from the virus. “We have replicated the experience of countries like China, where funeral ceremonies are carried out with specific precautions and limited to a certain number of family members.
“Also, the ministry has coordinated with several countries such as Jordan and Egypt in addition to the Israeli side in terms of arrivals, with the [Palestinian] workers who stayed [in Israel] during the coronavirus crisis the only vulnerability, as they make more money in Israel,” he elaborated. “Economic interests are in conflict with medical interests, leading organized parties to exploit workers,” Ashour said.
Elaf Abu Zarou is a physician at a testing station in Huwara, just south of the city of Nablus, that the ministry set up to test people suspected of infection, especially laborers returning from Israel. She told The Media Line that doctors were carrying out epidemiological monitoring, with random tests of Palestinians from locations near Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“Here in Huwara and nearby, there’s direct contact between Palestinians and Israelis, especially settlers. We visit places selected at random and test citizens, as well as workers after they return [from Israel],” Abu Zarou said. She added, “We cover gas stations, supermarkets, people who worked in Israel and settlements and at any place where Israelis are present.”
Ahmad Bitawi, executive director of Ramallah Medical Complex, told The Media Line that, based on the cases of COVID-19 infection in the Palestinian territories and studies conducted on the virus, the virus was more aggressive in Europe, the US and Israel.
“The number of infected patients in a country and the number who died indicates that the virus’s impact was more severe in Israel and Europe,” Bitawi said. “These are facts and numbers, and that’s what we, as doctors, know.”
He explained that in Ramallah Medical Complex there were 75 ventilators, but some were already in use. “Until now, our coronavirus patients didn’t really need ventilators, thank God. But if there is a virus outbreak here, we will need more.”
Recently, thousands of Americans signed a petition to the US Congress, asking lawmakers to pressure the Trump Administration to support the Palestinian health sector, specifically to release medical aid of $75 million that was allocated by Congress for the US Fiscal Year 2020 but which the administration has refused to release.