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In the age of coronavirus, Israel’s blockade of Gaza is a death sentence

Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, has become a ghost town.

On Sunday, after two people tested positive for COVID-19, cafes that are usually booming with young people, streets always overcrowded with pedestrians and vehicles, and markets never empty of life have all become deserted and colorless. Universities, schools, mosques, wedding halls and even funerals have all been officially shut down until further notice.

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Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

Schools, hotels and field hospitals have been turned into quarantine centers for over 1,200 people, including top Hamas leaders, policemen, nurses, doctors and others who either came in touch with infected patients or arrived recently from abroad. One such center is Ghassan Kanafani School in Rafah, where small classrooms have become a temporary shelter for isolation, with 10 mattresses on each floor, one meter apart.

Gazans are taking the coronavirus seriously, immediately complying with health directives; they know all too well that even a small outbreak can be a disaster for such a beleaguered population.

Still, despite the mighty efforts Gazans are undertaking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there’s a coming disaster. That’s because Israel’s Gaza policy, especially its draconian blockade, renders us all but completely helpless. And the situation is dire.

Gaza’s infrastructure, compromised by wars, the blockade and economic impoverishment, is critically unequipped to contain a virus outbreak or even detect it in its early stages. The quarantine centers themselves are unsanitary and overcrowded. This could easily lead to rapid spread of the virus in zones that are meant to contain it.

In addition, due to the blockade, health workers, cleaners and policemen working in quarantine zones lack protective clothing and N95 masks. They also have a shortage of the chemicals necessary to make disinfectants, like hydrogen peroxide, which Israel restricts under the pretext of “dual-use” — items they say can also be used for building weapons.

Gaza also has a severe shortage of testing kits — Israel only allowed 200 through the blockade. As a result, the Health Ministry here has already begun rationing the tests. It has only tested 92 people so far, when it is likely that far more have been exposed.

And these are only the dangers that have arisen in the short-term. Long-term, Gazans’ physical health has been seriously impacted by over a decade under the blockade. Many suffer chronic malnutrition, leaving them weak and at higher risk for infections and complications.

Worst of all, Gaza’s health sector doesn’t have the capacity to treat coronavirus patients. As of 2017, Gaza had only 1.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people, while the U.S. has approximately 2.9. It has been at a “breaking point” since 2018, according to the UN, and it has gotten worse since then.

The U.S. has been a contributor to these problems. Only a few months after that report, the Trump administration drastically cut funding to UNRWA-run hospitals. At the same time, public and private hospitals have been overwhelmed by a growing number of cancer patients and permanently low stock of medical supplies due to the blockade.

There are only 62 ventilators in the entire Gaza Strip, and only 20 are not already occupied by terminally ill patients. X-Ray, CT, MRI machines, and intensive care equipment are old. Power fluctuations due to the electricity crisis in Gaza has damaged hundreds medical machines. Without the ability to import new necessary devices or repair broken ones, the blockade sentences Gaza’s medical sector to failure.

The coronavirus combined with the population’s poor health and inadequate medical system mean that an outbreak in Gaza is unlikely to be contained and hospitals would be unable to treat patients. In other words, it would be a death sentence.

That’s why there is nothing more urgent than for Israel to radically change its Gaza policy. A full removal of the blockade on two million Gazans is the least it can do to mitigate a catastrophe.

The only way out is if Israelis and Palestinians put the conflict behind them immediately and review the problem together, as humans. It has been done before: In 2016, when Israel was struggling with numerous wildfires, the Palestinian Authority sent dozens of firefighters to help extinguish the fire.

A spirit of cooperation and brotherhood is now critical, not just because Israel has a legal responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of people under its occupation, but because it’s the right and moral thing to do to fulfill the Jewish principles of Tzedakah: loving-kindness and compassion.

Israel has already transferred $30 million to the Palestinian Authority (from the $175 of PA tax money that Israel is withholding) and sent Gaza 200 testing kits, but much bigger measures are needed to meet the monumental challenge ahead.

Israel should provide Gaza with all necessary medical equipment, testing kits and protective clothing immediately or facilitate their entry from international organizations. Israel should also lift the ban on Gaza’s ability to import necessary materials such as disinfectant chemicals and construction materials to build field hospitals and quarantine zones.

Israel should also designate hospital beds for critical Gazan patients and allow unrestricted passage in and out of Gaza for patients seeking treatment in Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank, Jerusalem or abroad as well as for medical crews seeking to help in Gaza’s hospitals. Israel should also allow unrestricted passage of fuel to Gaza’s power plant, and increase Gaza’s electricity intake by activating a new power line that is already installed.

On Gaza’s side, Hamas must immediately empower the Palestinian Authority to re-assume full control over Gaza’s health sector and border security. It must also release all political detainees and prisoners in its captivity to spare them the nightmare of corona outbreak in confinement. A mutual cessation of hostilities and increase of cooperation is vital to make it through the corona pandemic with the least possible damage.

If both sides make these swift, fundamental changes, perhaps we can alleviate the coming humanitarian tragedy.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Israel bans hydrogen peroxide and chlorine. Israel does not ban either; it restricts hydrogen peroxide. We sincerely regret the error.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward.

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