Fears Rise As Two COVID-19 Cases Confirmed In Besieged Gaza Strip

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Above Photo: A Palestinian worker wearing protective gear disinfects streets as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus, at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on March 16, 2020. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA)

It was an announcement Palestinians were hoping they would never have to hear in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

On Sunday, the first two cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in the besieged Gaza Strip, home to over 2 million Palestinians.

According to the health officials in Gaza, the two patients had recently traveled back to Gaza from Pakistan through the Rafah crossing, and were immediately put into quarantine upon their arrival.

They tested positive for the virus Saturday night, and are being held in a field hospital in  the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.

Officials said on Friday that nearly 1,200 Palestinians  who recently entered Gaza from abroad were being kept in quarantine in 18 different locations.

Authorities in Gaza have been taking precautionary measures over the past few weeks, ever since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Schools, public markets, and event halls were closed over the past few weeks, and on Sunday, Hamas stepped up measures to curb the spread of the virus by closing down cafes, restaurants, and suspending Friday prayers at mosques across the enclave.

Officials urged Gazans to practice “social distancing” measures and avoid leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary.

As the coronavirus spread across Israel and the West Bank, experts have expressed fear over the potential disaster if the virus reached Gaza, which has been under a brutal air, land, and sea blockade since 2007.

Along with having one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, more than 70 percent of Gaza’s residents are refugees, living in crowded refugee camps with poor building, water, and electricity infrastructures.

Last week, Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory, said he was “particularly worried” about COVID-19 reaching Gaza, where the healthcare system “was collapsing even before the pandemic.”

“Its stocks of essential drugs are chronically low,” Lynk said. “Its natural sources of drinkable water are largely contaminated. Its electrical system provides sporadic power. Deep poverty amid appalling socio-economic conditions is prevalent throughout the Strip.”

Lynk added that Israel was legally obligated, as an occupying power, to ensure that it provides all the necessary means available to prevent the spread of the disease in Gaza and the West Bank.

At the request of the World Health Organization (WHO), Israel has reportedly transferred an estimated 400 coronavirus tests to the West Bank, which has a population of more than 3 million people, and only 200 test kits to Gaza.

Activists have voiced concerns that if the virus continues to spread, and Israel continues to control what moves in and out of Gaza and the West Bank, it could severely impact the Palestinians’ efforts to fight the virus.

Israeli authorities announced on Saturday night that they would be shutting down the borders of the entire West Bank, and Gaza, with Israel. Only health workers with the proper permission would be allowed in and out of the territory.

Up until Saturday, Bethlehem, the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the West Bank, was the only place in the occupied territory that had been completely shut off to Israel and other parts of the West Bank.

In the past few days, however, the virus has spread to other districts in the West Bank, forcing the Palestinian Authority to enforce similar lockdown measures in other districts of the territory.

As of Sunday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the West Bank reached 59 — including 17 patients from Bethlehem who were in recovery– with cases being reported in Ramallah, Tulkarem, Nablus, and Hebron.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced a nationwide lockdown and curfew, similar to the one in Bethlehem, preventing people from leaving their homes and moving throughout their respective cities for the next two weeks.

Exceptions will be applied to people working at pharmacies, hospitals, grocery stores, as well as journalists.

Shtayyeh also announced a ban on movement between the governorates in the West Bank, and a ban on residents of villages and refugee camps from moving between their neighborhoods and the city centers.