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Pandemic Hits Gaza Strip
Volunteers disinfect a street on Sunday in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

Pandemic Hits Gaza Strip

Coronavirus sparks fear – and worse – at enclave’s quarantine facilities

Isolated as they have been for 13 years by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Gazans had hoped the global coronavirus outbreak would pass them by. But at dawn on Sunday, the Hamas-run Health Ministry announced that the first two COVID-19 patients had been in placed in quarantine.

The men, in their 30s and 40s, have been in isolation since they entered from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing last Thursday.

“On Sunday, test results confirmed the coronavirus infection of two citizens who returned from Pakistan,” Yousef Abu al-Reesh, Gaza’s deputy health minister, told reporters.

Abu al-Reesh said there were no locally transmitted cases, adding that appropriate medical measures had been taken to ensure the safety of all others who had arrived with the two.

A total of 1,271 persons who have not exhibited symptoms but may have been exposed to coronavirus are in 20 quarantine facilities in the Gaza Strip, according to ministry figures. Another 2,071 persons have been ordered to self-quarantine.

A delegation headed by Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, the Jerusalem-based head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Country Office for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arrived on Sunday morning via the Erez crossing from Israel.

“At this stage, we are focusing on containing the virus, quarantining the infected cases and pursuing their contacts,” Rockenschaub said in an interview.

He hailed the role of Gaza’s Health Ministry, saying it is “on the right path of preventing the spread of the virus.”

Although health officials have repeatedly said since early March that there were enough quarantine facilities to keep an outbreak in check, many people now complain that the conditions at the facilities are unhealthy.

The Media Line was able to contact Samah Alrawagh, a woman who returned from Egypt six days ago and has been quarantined at a converted school in the central Gaza Strip governorate of Deir al-Balah.

“We face difficult sanitary conditions here. At first, we had to share bathrooms, living in classrooms with at least nine or 10 other people, and no regular examinations. I felt my privacy was being terribly violated,” Alrawagh said.

“Later, they managed to build separate bathrooms for each floor. Medical staff started to take better care of sanitary conditions inside the quarantine facility, and of us as well,” she continued.

“The news that two infected cases have been confirmed made all of us freak out,” she added. “I hope this ends soon.”

Dr. Abdel Nasser Soboh, head of the WHO office in the enclave itself, said on Sunday: “The health system in the Gaza Strip can deal with 100 cases without considering it a heavy burden, but if the numbers increase, Gaza will be unable to control the situation. Then, there will be [a need for] an urgent international and global intervention to provide special resources to face the epidemic.”

Authorities have started to take more vigorous action to contain the situation. On Sunday, Gaza’s Civil Defense department completed the “sterilization” of Shejaiya, a densely populated neighborhood in the eastern part of Gaza City, in an effort to protect the residents from coronavirus.

In the same vein, Gaza’s Interior Ministry on Sunday ordered the closure “until further notice of all restaurants, cafeterias, event halls, funeral homes and traditional markets, and the suspension of Friday prayers at mosques.”

The move deals a knockout blow to the already feeble economy of the enclave, whose 2 million residents endure suffocating rates of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.

Abuwalid Abu-Huwaidi, owner of a wedding hall that has been seriously impacted by anti-coronavirus measures, told The Media Line: “Many wedding reservations have been canceled, deposits have been withdrawn and the livelihood of 17 families [of employees] is suspended until further notice. This is a 100% loss for us.”

Khalid, who preferred that his last name not be used, shuttered his clothing store for fear of the pandemic.

“I know my losses will be heavy, but I must do it for my sake and for the sake of my family,” he told The Media Line.

“I appreciate what the authorities are doing, but I think they could have avoided this catastrophe if they were better prepared,” he said. “I can’t actually tell whether there are coronavirus cases inside the Strip or not. That’s why I’m staying home as long as it takes.”

Others do not have that luxury.

Ahmed Abukhreis, a cigarette seller who supports his own and his brother’s family, is working despite the stringent measures.

“Selling cigarettes is the only source of income I have to make my daily living,” he told The Media Line. “Staying home would require having enough food and other supplies for at least two weeks, which is not possible in my case.”

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