Gaza Strip Struggles Under Strain of COVID-19 and Its Consequences
The authorities in Gaza can do little to alleviate the situation, economist says
The Gaza Strip’s health system is stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic, with the head of one hospital warning that there were no beds to spare and some COVID-19 patients were being sent elsewhere.
Yousuf Alaqqad, who runs the European Gaza Hospital in Khan Yunis, told local reporters that “ at the moment, the hospital is completely full and there are no available beds.” The hospital, which does not accept coronavirus patients unless they are in moderate condition or worse, has “122 cases in need of respiratory support, 35 of which are in critical condition in the intense care unit,” he said on Saturday.
As soon as patients improve, European Gaza hospital sends them elsewhere, he added.
Authorities in the coastal enclave had previously declared a state of high alert, and measures to prevent the virus’s spread were tightened over the weekend. Starting Saturday, shops “will be closed at 6 pm, and daily curfews will be imposed at 6:30 pm [instead of 8 pm],” the Interior Ministry said last week.
The ministry spokesperson, Iyad Al-Bozom, said on Thursday that “in light of the epidemiological situation assessment … and the high numbers of infections and deaths, all data and developments have been evaluated, and all options have been taken into consideration … including the option of full lockdown … the solution we are trying to avoid now.”
These restrictions would damage the Gazan economy, experts said.
“Closures that are part of measures to contain the virus have led to the collapse of most economic sectors, such as the tourism sector, which is the most affected, and its related services, economic researcher Raed Helles said in a radio interview. “Then come the other sectors, such as the agricultural and the industrial sectors.”
The Labor Ministry reported that 158,000 workers were affected by the pandemic. The unemployment rate in Gaza was high before the spread of COVID-19.
The Gazan poverty rate has reached 53%, and the unemployment rate, at 52%, is the world’s highest. The youth unemployment rate is 70%, and 80% of them receive aid, Helles said. In addition, 72% of Gazans suffer from food insecurity.
The majority of Gazans are under the age of 18. They represent the region’s future, yet many are trying to emigrate.
“In the Gaza Strip, youth are the most affected and vulnerable in terms of lack of personal and societal security, lack of basic needs, poor social protection, denial of political power, shrinking adjustment options,” development expert Tayseer Mhaisen told The Media Line.
“Even before the corona outbreak, there was a high youth unemployment rate, especially among graduates of universities, institutes and colleges, and they were tending toward migration, suicide and retreat,” he said.
Anas Ftaiha, a 27-year-old media and public-information graduate who spent the past four years looking for any kind of job, has decided to move to Turkey, he told The Media Line.
“I know that Turkey is now full of Syrians, and job opportunities there are getting scarcer, but anyway it wouldn’t be any worse than here. Gaza was already shattered, and all indicators show that the worst is yet to come. I think corona[virus] is the final straw” he said.
Gaza-based economist Mohammed Abujayyab told The Media Line that many fields have been seriously impacted.
“Public transportation, due to the restriction of movement, construction and industrial services, which had been completely suspended for a long period, daily-wage labor and business sectors all are negatively influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Abujayyab said he expected even graver repercussions unless the situation improved. “Entire establishments might disappear, go out of business. More than 400 wedding halls, so far, with a total investment of nearly $100 million, have been completely suspended” from operating.
One of the businesses harmed by the measures is Alhaddad grocery store.
Owner Bilal Alhadad, 30, told The Media Line that he “incurred a loss of $5,000 just in two months.”
“Because of the limited period of operation [eight hours a day], [Gazans’] weak purchasing power and the strict measures, I’ve lost huge amounts of fruit and vegetables, had to lay off four workers and eventually shut down my store,” Alhaddad said.
Women’s businesses have also suffered.
The Zeina Cooperative Association is in Om Alnasser village in the northern Gaza Strip, where women are the breadwinners. The association helps women of the area and their families by selling items they have made, including hand-crafted gifts, educational toys and puppets.
“At the beginning of the outbreak period [in March], the effect wasn’t noticeable. We used to market our products domestically and internationally, but since [last] April, we had to suspend work for two months due to the lockdown measures,” Executive Manager Haneen Alsammak told The Media Line.
When they resumed the work in June, demand had shrunk, so production was halved, she said.
“But despite the heavy losses, we kept the 30 women who work at the workshop because we’re a social and economic institution with nonprofit goals,” Alsammak added.
Layla Tayeh, one of the workers at the cooperative and head of household of a five-member-family, told The Media Line that “we already lived in difficult conditions, but the pandemic has worsened the situation. I can only afford the most fundamental basics for my family to stay alive. I don’t feel like it’s going to get any better soon.”
Policymakers in the Palestinian enclave have difficult decisions to make but very limited options.
“To overcome this crisis, much is required from the authorities in Gaza, but actually there’s no chance they can do anything with the current realities,” Abujayyab said.
“We are talking about a governmental system that is in crisis financially, economically, politically and in external relations. Thus, its potential to make a [positive] intervention is zero. In fact, it is pressing the private sector for more revenue to spend on other operational sectors and on salaries. Any talk about supporting the private sector is just a media statement with no impact on the ground,” he concluded.