As Gazans flee airstrikes, crowded shelters could increase COVID spread

72,000 Palestinians have been displaced, says UN; Gaza health officials warn ‘an even crueler third wave’ of the virus looms; main COVID lab shut down by Israeli strike nearby

Palestinian families whose homes were damaged by Israeli aircraft strikes  in response to rocket fire are displaced to a United Nations school in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on May 17, 2021 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian families whose homes were damaged by Israeli aircraft strikes in response to rocket fire are displaced to a United Nations school in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on May 17, 2021 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

As tens of thousands of Gazans seek cover from Israeli airstrikes, crowded shelters could set off another wave of the coronavirus pandemic, health officials in the coastal enclave said on Wednesday.

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed residential areas in Gazan cities and caused many to flee to other parts of the enclave for shelter, fearing for their lives. At least 72,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict with Israel last week, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Around 48,000 have taken shelter in some 58 schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN body said. The organization is responsible for Palestinian refugees and operates a network of social services in the Gaza Strip.

“People are crowded in classrooms. There’s enormous exposure. We were already in the second wave; now we’re afraid that an even crueler third wave is on the way,” said Dr. Abd al-Latif al-Haj, an official in the Gaza Health Ministry.

A top view shows the remains of a six-story building that was destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, May 18, 2021, amid fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and the coastal enclave’s Hamas rulers. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Tens of thousands more have taken shelter in relatives’ homes. Many Gazans already live in overcrowded homes filled with immediate and extended family.

“We might see cases in which entire households or entire shelters are exposed in a mass-spreading event,” Sacha Bootsma, who directs the World Health Organization’s Gaza branch.

Bootsma said the WHO was working to provide for Gazans to be able to isolate in the shelters.

While Israel has largely managed to leave the pandemic behind thanks to its successful vaccination campaign, less than 2 percent of Gazans have been vaccinated.

Many Gazans seem to have been already infected with coronavirus, Bootsma noted, meaning that there is a certain level of immunity present in the population.

But Gaza’s main coronavirus laboratory has also ceased functioning due to damage from an Israeli airstrike across the street from the lab, Hamas health minister Yousef Abu Rish said Monday night.

The Israeli army has said it does not target civilians and seeks to avoid damage to residential areas as much as possible. It further argues that Hamas deliberately places its military infrastructure in civilian areas. Some errant Palestinian rockets fired by terror groups at the south of Israel may also have caused damage inside the Gaza Strip, although it was unclear how much of the damage could be ascribed to the rocket fire.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, 219 Palestinians, including 63 children, have been killed in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. Twelve people in Israel have been killed by Palestinian rockets, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.

Doctors fighting on two fronts

Since the advent of hostilities between Israel and the Hamas terror group last Monday, doctors in Gaza have struggled to fight on two fronts: to save the wounded from the war and the COVID-infected amid the ongoing pandemic.

A man walks past the the rubble of the Yazegi residential building that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Two days after the strike near the coronavirus laboratory, the facility has yet to resume its operations. Even before the bombing, Bootsma said, coronavirus vaccination and testing had nearly ground to a halt due to the violence.

“People were simply too scared to go out,” Bootsma said.

The alleged Israeli airstrike targeted the Faisal al-Shawa building in the al-Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City. The clinic is adjacent to the al-Shawa building, according to Gaza media.

The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment on the airstrike. A spokesperson said on Monday night it was looking into the matter, but that “given that there have been so many strikes, it takes time to determine what happened.”

Gaza’s medical infrastructure has been under tremendous strain due to a blockade by Israel and Egypt that has lasted over 15 years. Israel says the sanctions are necessary to prevent a serious military threat from Hamas, while rights groups lament its impact on ordinary Gazans.

Al-Haj listed the basic medical devices which he said had not entered Gaza since a few months before Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007: new ambulances, operating tables, and certain kinds of ceiling lights.

“In Gaza, we’re talking about a medical system that hasn’t seen replacement equipment for ten or fifteen years,” Al-Haj said.

Al-Haj had visited Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan not so long ago, he said, and keenly felt the difference in available equipment.

“The civilians are paying the price. How can it be that we can’t take care of our civilians the way Israel can help its civilians in Barzilai, Soroka, or Tel Hashomer (Sheba)?” he said.

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