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Gaza sees record 23 deaths from coronavirus, marking pandemic’s deadliest day

Hamas-ruled coastal enclave has seen rising infection rates for past month; start of Ramadan brings more danger

Members of the Palestinian security forces perform checks on the street after a lockdown was ordered in Gaza Strip until April 11, 2021, to curb the spreading of coronavirus. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90
Members of the Palestinian security forces perform checks on the street after a lockdown was ordered in Gaza Strip until April 11, 2021, to curb the spreading of coronavirus. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Gaza saw a record 23 deaths from coronavirus in 24 hours, making Saturday the deadliest day in the coastal enclave since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The epidemiological situation in the Gaza Strip is getting worse, especially the number of severe and critical cases in hospital beds,” Hamas health official Muatasem Salah told Al-Aqsa Radio on Sunday.

Both the terror group and international observers have warned that the Gaza health system — worn down by years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and three wars between Israel and the enclave’s rulers — is ill-equipped to handle a severe spike in cases.

“Gaza is blockaded and enormously densely populated… We have a lack of oxygen with which to treat patients, and we currently only have enough medication to treat coronavirus patients to last for the next three months,” another Hamas health official, Munir al-Bursh, estimated in a phone call last month.

While Israel has leapt ahead in vaccinating its population, allowing a gradual return to normal life, the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip possesses only enough vaccines for a small fraction of its population.

Around 41% of coronavirus tests came back positive on Saturday, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The high number is likely due to limited testing; Gaza has only one main laboratory for processing coronavirus tests.

The enclave currently has 20,178 active coronavirus infections, a number that has more than tripled since the beginning of April. But health officials in Gaza estimate that the true number of coronavirus cases is likely four or five times higher than that.

Palestinians from Gaza’s health ministry unload boxes of Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses sent by the United Arab Emirates, at the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 11, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Health officials blame the fast-spreading British variant for the current surge in cases, as well as poor monitoring at the newly reopened Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

“Thousands now cross from Egypt every day. They check their temperature and wave them through,” former Palestinian Authority Health Minister Jawad al-Tibi told The Times of Israel in early April.

As cases rose in Gaza, Hamas ordered tighter restrictions — including closing schools and imposing a nightly curfew — a week and a half ago. It remains too early to know how much of an effect the curfew is having, given it takes over two weeks to begin to see the results of a lockdown.

But the surge in cases coincided with the advent of the month-long Ramadan holiday. One of the holiest periods in the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is traditionally a time for mass gatherings in mosques and in one another’s homes.

Many small businesses closed by government order, but major malls remained open, and Gazans crowded into them to purchase groceries and presents for the Ramadan festivities.

“People are bumping up against one another,” Gaza resident Sami Ashour wrote in a Twitter post criticizing the policy. “I say we should close the malls and have people purchase from small businesses, so as to reduce the congestion.”

The contrast with Israel could hardly be more stark. On Sunday, with most eligible Israelis vaccinated, health authorities officially lifted the requirement to wear masks outside to prevent coronavirus infection.

Palestinians shop in the market during the holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 17, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

With more than four times Gaza’s population, Israel currently has just 2,540 active infections. Only 0.8% of tests came back positive over the past 24 hours in Israel.

Gaza has been slow to start its own anti-coronavirus vaccination campaign. So far, the enclave has received enough shots to fully immunize just over 2% of the total population.

Around 60,000 Russian Sputnik V doses sent by the United Arab Emirates have arrived in Gaza; another 2,000 were transferred by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Gaza has also received 20,000 Pfizer and AstraZeneca doses through COVAX, an international vaccine program backed by the World Health Organization.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 90,088 Gazans are known to have been infected with coronavirus and 761 have died. Gaza health officials, however, estimate that the true infection rate is much higher; one study in February found that as many as 40% of Gazans might have been infected with the virus.

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