Virus surges in crowded Gaza can overwhelm hospitals

Gaza Strip, Gaza Strip (AP) — More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic, the worst concerns are becoming a reality in the crowded Gaza Strip. Border closure.

Gaza’s major treatment centers for COVID-19 patients warn that oxygen supply is declining rapidly. In another hospital, patients with coronavirus are packed in a triple room.

For months, the Hamas rulers in Gaza seemed to be dealing with the containment of the pandemic. However, their decision to lift most migration restrictions in February, coupled with the spread of more aggressive viral variants and the lack of vaccines, led to a violent second surge.

At the same time, many of Gaza’s more than 2 million people ignore safety precautions, especially during the current Ramadan fasting month. During the day, the market is flooded with shoppers buying Iftar merchandise, and meals fast after sunset. Even if they do, they rarely wear masks properly.

“Corona is not a game,” said Yasmin Ali, 32, whose 64-year-old mother died of the virus last week. “If you don’t protect yourself in the first place, many people will be killed.”

From the beginning, the pandemic process in Gaza, one of the busiest regions in the world, was shaped primarily by politics. Border closures enforced to varying degrees by Israel and Egypt since the Islamic extremist Hamas group took control of Gaza in 2007 helped delay its initial spread. Initially, Hamas sequestered a small group of travelers from Egypt, and the first case of community expansion was reported only in August.

The first outbreak occurred in the fall. Hamas sought to contain it by closing schools, mosques and markets and imposing a curfew. By February, the infection had dropped sharply.

At that point, Hamas lifted the curfew. The students returned to school, the wedding hall was reopened, and the street market was back. Travelers from Egypt were no longer quarantined or even tested. Instead, they were waved after the temperature check, assuming they had already been tested in Egypt.

The decision to reopen was partly due to financial concerns. The closure further struck Gaza’s long-suffering economy, with unemployment at around 50% and youth at 70%.

Hamas may also have been concerned about prolonging unpopular measures prior to the Palestinian parliamentary elections. In a May 22 vote, Hamas opposes the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, based on the West Bank. Although there is no credible vote, Hamas appears to be vulnerable to Fatah’s challenge in Gaza, even though it is expected to work on the West Bank.

Ramadan began in mid-April with crowded markets and late-night mosque prayers, further facilitating the infection, as more aggressive viral variants emerged.

Last week, the number of deaths per day exceeded 20 on most days, compared to a daily high of 15 in the first surge. Daily 1,000 to 1,500 infections are the new standard. The total number of infections is close to 100,000 and 848 have died.

European hospitals in the town of Khan Eunice, the main treatment center for COVID-19 patients, are quickly running out of resources.

Its director, Yousef al-Aqqad, said 118 of the 150 beds were occupied by patients with severe or critical conditions. He said that when the number of patients exceeds 150, hundreds more oxygen cylinders will be needed.

Gaza’s largest Shifa Hospital has 100 beds for COVID-19 patients, including 12 in the ICU. The hospital postponed elective surgery and closed outpatient clinics while continuing life-saving services such as heart surgery and dialysis.

The Ministry of Health said almost all of Gaza has been designated as a “red zone” for widespread community dissemination.

Health official Dr. Majdi Dhair said the limited medical infrastructure in Gaza made the situation worse.

A serious shortage of vaccines raises another challenge.

Israel, with its successful vaccination campaign, has been widely criticized for refusing to accept responsibility for vaccination of Palestinians. Under international law, Israel continues to be liable to Palestinians in areas occupied by the 1967 Middle East War, such as Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, according to rights groups. Israel states that the provisional peace agreement exempts it from liability, especially in Gaza, which withdrew in 2005 while tightly controlling its borders.

So far, Gaza has received enough to fully vaccinate more than 55,000 people and is shipped from the COVAX program backed by the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations.

At the same time, skepticism is widespread in Gaza, especially regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is associated with rare blood clots, Dhair said.

Health officials are urging people over the age of 40 to get jabs, but thousands of AstraZeneca have been put on the shelves.

In crowded Gaza, it’s almost impossible to stay away from others. Dhair said he also encountered widespread indifference. “There is no belief by the people, and even if we put a checkpoint, they remove the mask when they pass the policeman,” he said.

After a surge in incidents last week, Hamas again tightened restrictions at the request of health officials. It re-imposed a curfew and a closed mosque for Ramadan night prayers.

The blockade after darkness had a new financial impact. Restaurants usually thrive in Ramadan after loyal people fast daily. Previously, cafes and eateries were full until dawn.

Ramadan provides temporary employment to 30,000 to 50,000 people, primarily restaurant workers and vendors. Most of them are due to new restrictions, according to economist Omar Shaban.

Mamdouh Abu Hassira, a popular Ramadan spot with seaside cafés overlooking the Mediterranean sunset, had to fire 15 of its 19 workers. Abu Hashira said it doesn’t make sense for him to allow shoppers to gather in the daytime market while banning families from enjoying Iftar in his restaurant. “We were destroyed,” he said of his business.

A Hamas government spokesman, Salama Malouf, said managing a pandemic is a balancing act. “The confrontation with the virus is long-term. We are trying to take steps to improve our health without harming other departments,” he said.

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