By| Muhammad Shehada
As the novel Coronavirus, Covid-19, spreads around the globe, local authorities in the Gaza Strip are going to great lengths to ensure that Gaza remains corona-free at all costs. But without structural change in Israel's blockade on Gaza, that task is becoming a serious challenge.
An abundance of caution
Ever since seven coronavirus cases were identified in Bethlehem on 5 March, Gaza's local government has been taking special precautions to avoid a possible disaster.
Dozens of small housing units have been built near the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to shelter new arrivals who show symptoms of the virus, and nearby schools are equipped to serve as quarantine areas. 2667 new arrivals were put in home isolation for two weeks, and Gaza's Health Ministry has begun putting up a field hospital at the Rafah crossing.
Additionally, the Ministry of Interior has temporarily suspended crossings at Rafah while local municipalities disinfect widely in public areas. Universities, schools and other social gatherings have been temporarily suspended for 30 days.
Only 19 newly arrived passengers have been tested for the virus, and fortunately the results were negative, maintaining Gaza – officially at least – as a corona-free zone. But despite the drastic measures Gazans are taking to avert a possible disaster, no amount of preparedness that Gaza takes on its own, can mitigate or contain a potential corona outbreak.
Most of Gaza's medical equipment is as old as Israel's blockade
A compromised health sector
Israeli and Palestinian health experts concur that it would be catastrophic, were coronavirus to spread to the besieged enclave. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with more than two million people living on only 362 square km of land.
This overpopulation problem is compounded by extreme poverty, where only 40 percent of residents can afford the $320 annual cost of medical insurance.
This adds to collapsed infrastructure, weak economy and poor sanitary conditions as a direct result of Israel's 13-year long blockade, and periodic military assaults on the caged population. Such a combination of crises renders the enclave ultra-vulnerable to pandemics.
Moreover, Gaza's compromised health sector is critically unprepared to treat any patients infected with coronavirus, as it is already at "a breaking point," according to the United Nations. Israel's defense ministry also asserted recently that Gaza's health sector is "on the verge of collapse."
Israel's blockade has prevented Gaza's health ministry from carrying out repairs or importing new equipment
Israel attacked and obliterated several hospitals in Gaza during the 2014 war. The remaining hospitals are in dire and appalling conditions today as a result of the blockade, and more recently, the Trump administration's decision to defund UNRWA and USAID in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Gaza's hospital currently suffers severe shortages of hospital beds, where there is currently around 1 bed per 1,000 people.
Most of those beds are already occupied by Gazans who were deliberately maimed by Israel during the Return March and require periodic medical care. Similarly, Gaza's hospitals suffer from severe shortages in medical personnel, and chronic shortages of 30 percent in essential medicines, and up to 50 percent in medical disposables.
Worst of all, most of Gaza's medical equipment is as old as Israel's blockade. According to local authorities, 420 medical machines broke down in 2015 because they were outdated, or because of power fluctuations, as Gaza still suffers from acute electricity shortages.
This alarmingly includes intensive care, dialysis, X-ray machines, CT scan equipment, and ventilators. Israel's blockade has prevented Gaza's health ministry from carrying out repairs or importing new similar equipment.
These factors undermine the functioning of Gaza's hospitals under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. In other words, coronavirus would be a death sentence to the beleaguered population of Gaza.
Nonetheless, there is one key to mitigating and possibly averting what would otherwise be a disaster: Israel. Gaza remains tightly under Israel's control as it decides on everything that goes in or out of the besieged enclave.
Since the virus became a pandemic, Israel has shown Gaza the minimal amount of responsibility necessary to assuage international concerns and condemnations. It merely allowed 200 test kits to enter Gaza and imposed an indefinite closure on the entire Gazan population.
Yet, Israeli decision makers are evidently dreading an outbreak of coronavirus in Gaza, as it would expose Israel's cruel control and immiseration of the blockaded Strip, and put it in a critical situation where it cannot evade responsibility.
What can be done
To prevent disaster, the international community should pressure Israel to act now, and carry out fundamental and structural change towards Gaza to revive its health sector before it's too late. Under international law, Israel as the occupying power is fully responsible for the welfare and safety of the occupied population. This necessitates Israel undertaking a number of critical actions.
First, Israel should immediately allow unrestricted access to Gaza for medical crews from all different national backgrounds, and should allow unrestricted travel for Gazan patients seeking medical treatment in the West Bank, Jerusalem or abroad.
Israel should end its ban on the entry of items listed as 'dual use' goods, including medicines, disinfectants and chemicals
It should also allow necessary tools and technicians to repair all of Gaza's damaged medical equipment and allow Gaza's health ministry to import new up-to-date machinery, hospital beds and construction materials to build new medical facilities and quarantine zones.
Second, Israel should end its ban on the entry of items listed as "dual use" goods, including medicines, disinfectants and chemicals. For instance, Israel bans the entry of hydrogen peroxide and chlorine (used to make medical disinfectants) to Gaza – as it alleges that they could be used to manufacture explosives.
Third, Israel should allow the unconstrained entry of fuel to Gaza for its power plant. It should increase Gaza's electricity intake from Israel, by for instance activating the power line number 161, recently funded by Qatar.
Ensuring that Gaza is fully equipped with electricity, medical supplies and manpower is the least Israel is obliged to do under international law to avert a preventable disaster in Gaza.
Otherwise, Israel will be fully responsible for the fate of two million Gazans caged in inhumane conditions under its blockade, whose life it holds in their hands.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.