Gaza sees first COVID-19 cases outside of quarantine facilities

Health authorities in Hamas-run Strip announce strict 48-hour lockdown as 4 cases identified in refugee camp, raising specter of community spread after virus kept at bay for months

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

The Hamas-controlled Palestinian Health Ministry has announced the first coronavirus cases inside the Gaza Strip outside quarantine facilities, leading to fears that the virus could overwhelm the Palestinian enclave’s health system and worsen an existing humanitarian crisis.

“We announce today the first coronavirus cases not contained in quarantine facilities in the Gaza Strip,” health officials said in a statement.

The cases were identified in al-Maghazi refugee camp: four members of the same family, three men and one woman. Earlier in the day, reports that large numbers of Interior Ministry officers and medical staff had entered the camp were dismissed as a training exercise.

Hamas health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said that the origin of the infection came while members of the family were visiting al-Makassed hospital inside Israel. The family returned to the Gaza Strip without crossing through a checkpoint and without entering a legally mandated quarantine.

For over seven months, authorities have managed to largely ward off the spread of the virus in the Gaza Strip, subjecting thousands of arrivals in the beleaguered Strip to severe quarantine measures — at least 21 days in health facilities specifically designated by the Hamas health ministry for the purpose.

The 109 cases identified before Monday night were all traced to new arrivals — mostly through the Rafah crossing with Egypt — after the pandemic began. Each case was contained in quarantine centers; none entered the Gaza Strip itself. As such, the coastal enclave managed to avoid community spread.

“We managed to keep the virus out for this whole time, even as the virus spread across the region and the world. But we always warned that the scenario of the virus entering the Strip was possible,” a spokesperson for the Gaza Health Ministry said. “This scenario today became reality.”

Hamas officials have announced a lockdown for at least the next 48 hours, with no one allowed to leave their homes except for medical personnel; violators will face legal consequences. Mosques and schools are closing until further notice, as well as most government institutions.

As Monday night faded into Tuesday night, security forces began circulating the coastal enclave in official vehicles, blasting news of the state of emergency through megaphones.

A full-fledged coronavirus outbreak in the Gaza Strip could be catastrophic, according to Physicians for Human Rights. After years of an Israeli blockade, Hamas rule and several wars, the coastal enclave suffers from overburdened and collapsing infrastructure.

“The insufficient amount of equipment needed to treat COVID-19 in the occupied Palestinian territory (e.g. 87 intensive care unit beds with ventilators for nearly 2 million people and a paucity of personal protective equipment) is compounded by poor public health conditions: a water and electricity crisis, rampant poverty, and a high population density,” Physicians for Human Rights members Dana Moss and Ghada Majadle wrote in The Lancet medical journal.

The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past few weeks. Gaza-based terror groups have launched hundreds of balloons into Israel and Israeli forces have retaliated with nightly air strikes and by imposing restrictions on the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing.

Israel banned, among other goods, fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power plant. Last week, the power plant shut down, leaving most Gazans with only a couple hours of electricity per day.

“The power cuts will have serious repercussions on the lives of premature babies in nurseries, intensive care patients and those needing dialysis, emergency surgery, or C-sections,” Hamas health spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said in a statement when the plant shut down.

Hamas Interior Ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Buzum did not rule out that the lockdown might be extended beyond 48 hours, saying that the government would announce procedures for providing basic sustenance to Gazans in the event that the lockdown continued.

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