A Palestinian worker wearing a protective mask works inside a bakery in Gaza City, on March 10, 2020. (Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Palestinians Take to Stores, Markets in West Bank

But in poverty-stricken Gaza, people have almost zero ability to stock up over coronavirus fears, experts say

Palestinians in West Bank cities, like many across the world living in the shadow of the COVID-19 virus, purchased large quantities of food and antiseptic products over the weekend, as people stockpiled supplies, anticipating that the Palestinian Authority’s emergency rules may expand to the closure of stores and shopping centers.

But in the Gaza Strip, despite the availability of products, many people cannot afford to buy things they may not need for some time if ever.

In the West Bank on Saturday, butchers, supermarkets and bakeries were crowded to the point that some shelves were emptied and then refilled, not only of sterilization materials but of food products as well. Such overcrowding and active shopping weren’t even witnessed during religious holidays and celebratory occasions.

Azmy Abd al-Rahman, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority’s Economy Ministry, told The Media Line that based on an inspection by ministry staff, stocks of foodstuffs for Palestinian cities are sufficient for months to come, despite this weekend’s purchases. “We’re currently working with importers and wholesalers to learn exactly how many days we have of food stocks, based on what’s available now and what can be imported.”

He said that if the stores supplying food had to be closed, it would be for a short time only.

“The reason behind all of the calls not to rush to the shops isn’t because we don’t have enough supply − the opposite is the case because we have enough – but because it causes confusion in the markets,” he said.

He added that the COVID-19 virus was under control in the Palestinian territories, as the number of infected persons had not risen for the past 10 days. “In terms of getting the virus under control, we’re second only to China,” Abd al-Rahman said.

Mohammed Abu Jayad, editor-in-chief of Al-Eqtesadia, a business newspaper in Gaza, told The Media Line that although food was readily available in the Strip, purchasing power there was almost zero, as the unemployment rate had reached 53%.

“Prior to the discovery of the coronavirus, more than 300,000 of our university graduates were unemployed and 70% of the people here live under the poverty line while more than a million live on international aid,” Abu Jayad said.

Moreover, he noted that there are hundreds if not thousands of teachers in Gaza who are paid by the shift. “Thus every day of work they lose [as the schools have been ordered closed], it cuts their income.”

Abu Jayad noted that no cases of the novel coronavirus had been identified in Gaza. Thirteen persons had symptoms that could have been from the disease and so were tested for COVID-19, but the results were negative. Still, preventive measures have been taken, he said,

“Nevertheless, at the level of health, Gaza is already suffering because of the 12-year siege; the hospitals’ readiness is almost nonexistent, which constitutes a major crisis.”

He added that through the World Health Organization, Israel allowed the entrance of 200 kits for COVID-19 laboratory tests. “However we need thousands of those tests. If the coronavirus spreads in Gaza, it would deepen the complications in the economy and human suffering and expand the crisis of the Strip,” Abu Jayad said.

Nasr Abd al-Kareem, a professor of finance and banking science at the American University in Ramallah, told The Media Line: “One must distinguish between the availability of food supplies and the purchasing power of people, where the markets have enough available, even in Gaza.”

He continued, “Crossings [to the Strip] are open and merchants who are eager to take advantage of the opportunity are there. In addition, there are the food stocks for Ramadan [the month of days of fasting and prayer followed by late-night family Iftar feasts that this year will run from late April to late May].”

Abd al-Kareem clarified that people’s ability to buy food would depend on the extent of the virus’s spread and how long the public-health closure lasted, especially since the Palestinian Authority’s financial resources were limited. “The Strip and the workers of the West Bank will suffer the most. The Strip has been under blockade for 12 years and the economy is deteriorating, where wages are very low for those who work. Furthermore, the cost of living in the West Bank is high,” he said.

The current situation could last months, during which the PA must take precautionary measures, since dealing with an uncontrollable outbreak of the virus “would be a crisis greater than it has the capacity to handle,” Abd al-Kareem said.

Khaled AlShiekh, a wholesaler in Ramallah, told The Media Line that after the buying spree over the weekend, food stocks are enough for two or three months at most, especially for basic items such as sugar, rice and flour, which were sold in large quantities.

“But based on the amount of food items purchased by people so far, they have stored and secured for themselves supplies for a month or two at a minimum,” AlShiekh added. “We import food, but the process takes at least a week, instead of two days as it should, and the quantities allowed are less than needed.”

Since PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency, with all schools and universities closed since March 5, the streets have been fairly empty, especially in the evening. Cafés and restaurants are completely closed.

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