Hamas extends Gaza’s coronavirus lockdown amid growing fears of outbreak

Health official warns of ‘more and more cases’ in coming days, after number of infections climbs to 60, and 3 people die of COVID-19

Palestinian Hamas policemen wear face masks as they guard in a street in Gaza City, during a 48 hour lockdown, August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian Hamas policemen wear face masks as they guard in a street in Gaza City, during a 48 hour lockdown, August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Health authorities in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip will extend its coronavirus lockdown for another 72 hours amid growing fears of an outbreak in the territory.

This week saw Gaza’s first infections outside of quarantine facilities. A wider outbreak could overwhelm the ailing health care system in the densely populated Strip, which is home to some 2 million Palestinians.

Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the enclave, announced a 48-hour curfew on Tuesday after finding four cases. On Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases rose to 60, and three people died of the virus.

“One case of coronavirus in the Gaza Strip would bring with it hundreds and thousands of positive cases. What we see now was expected. I will speak honestly: in the coming days, I expect to see more and more cases,”  the health ministry’s Dr. Yusuf Abu Rish announced at a press conference in Gaza City Wednesday night.

Gaza residents are to remain home, except for emergencies, during the lockdown.

The order may be extended again once the three-day period is finished, said Hamas Interior Minister Tawfiq Abu Na’im.

Until this week, the pandemic had left the coastal territory relatively unscathed. Blockaded by both Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip had managed to turn its relative isolation from the rest of the world into a asset against the coronavirus.

Hamas police officers wear protective suits as they take part in a simulation of possible coronavirus infections in Gaza City on July 18, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

For six months, the disease was safely contained in quarantine centers, where all arrivals to Gaza were confined for at least 21 days. Life outside of quarantine in the Gaza Strip went on as normally as could be expected — students were beginning to go back to school, the beaches were crowded, and restaurants and markets were open for business.

Then everything changed: four cases were discovered on Monday night in al-Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza City. After seven months of the pandemic, the coastal enclave suddenly went into lockdown.

Hamas health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra announced on Wednesday night that 24 new cases had been discovered in several locations across the Gaza Strip.  Some of the cases appeared to be “unrelated” to one another, raising fears of potential community spread.

“There are multiple ways this virus could have entered, and there have been several different clusters of infection so far,” Abu Rish said on Wednesday night.

Three Palestinians in the Gaza Strip died on Wednesday from the coronavirus. The fact that so many died so quickly after Monday night’s announcement indicated that the virus may have been spreading quietly in the Gaza Strip for some time, since deaths tend to occur a couple of weeks after infections.

Abu Rish stressed on Wednesday night that Gaza’s health care infrastructure could not bear a large outbreak.

“If the number of active cases is above 2,000, more than 250 new cases per day, we’ll deal with that situation, but we will not be able to effectively control matters,” Abu Rish warned.

Both Abu Rish and Abu Naim said that authorities were not yet sure how the virus first entered the Strip. A health ministry spokesperson had previously said that a woman had contracted it while in Israel to visit al-Makassed hospital in Jerusalem, and had returned without entering the required quarantine period.

Palestinian Hamas policemen stop vehicles during a 48 hour lockdown imposed following the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip on August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, 826 tests were conducted on Wednesday. The majority were conducted inside quarantine centers and in hospitals, according to Abu Rish.

The next step is to expand testing into Gaza’s residential areas — some of the most crowded in the world, Abu Rish said, but the Gaza Health Ministry has said that it suffers from a lack of available tests.

The spread of the virus in the enclave comes amid weeks of rising tensions between Hamas and Israel. Israel banned fuel and restricted other materials from entering the Gaza Strip after terrorists launched hundreds of arson balloons and several rockets into Israel.

Israel claims that the restrictions are necessary to pressure Hamas into cracking down on the balloons and rockets, although some Israeli human rights groups have called it a form of collective punishment.

Despite the Hamas lockdown and the increased Israeli restrictions, Gaza-based groups continued to launch the balloons, which have ignited scores of fires and sometimes carry explosives, into Israeli territory on Wednesday.

Efforts by Qatari envoy Mohammad al-Emadi, who arrived in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday night, to mediate between the two sides have not yet restored calm to the area. Hamas is said to be demanding additional financial support from Qatar, which provides tens of millions of dollars for a “Reconstruction Fund” for the Gaza Strip.

As a result of the restrictions imposed by Israel, Gaza is undergoing a major electricity crisis. The Strip’s sole power plant, which runs on diesel fuel, shut down two weeks ago.

The power shortages have affected hospitals as well as homes; Gazans saw their already meager rations of electricity plunge to as low as four hours a day.

Running water — another necessity during a pandemic — is also limited due to the power cuts.

“With running water available only a few hours a day, this decreases the ability of people to wash their hands and protect themselves from the virus,” Red Crescent spokesperson Suheir Zaqout said.

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