Health Ministry in Gaza calls on Palestinians to avoid travel abroad over virus
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Health Ministry in Gaza calls on Palestinians to avoid travel abroad over virus

Education Ministry cancels classes for the coming five days as infection spreads globally; WHO official says territory prepared to handle small number of cases

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

An employee of the Palestinian health ministry checks the Beit Hanoun hospital in the northern Gaza Strip after it stopped its services on January 29, 2018, after it ran out of fuel. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
An employee of the Palestinian health ministry checks the Beit Hanoun hospital in the northern Gaza Strip after it stopped its services on January 29, 2018, after it ran out of fuel. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The Hamas-run Health Ministry has urged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to avoid travel abroad as the coronavirus continues to spread around the world.

No cases of the virus have been reported in Gaza, where more than 2 million people live, including many in densely populated neighborhoods.

“We call on citizens to not depart the Gaza Strip — unless totally necessary — in order to preserve their well-being,” the ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

While Israel maintains significant restrictions on the movement of people into and out of Gaza through the Erez border crossing, thousands of Palestinians with permits from Israeli authorities travel to and through its territory monthly, including some who go to Jordan and other countries.

Israeli officials say the restrictions seek to prevent terror groups from transporting weapons or the means to make them into Gaza.

For most of the last decade, Egyptian authorities have imposed heavy limitations on the movement of people through the Rafah border crossing, but they have recently allowed a few hundred Palestinians to travel to Egypt daily by way of it.

The ministry also said that all persons returning to Gaza via the Rafah crossing would be required to quarantine themselves in their homes for two weeks.

It called on Palestinians to report violators, who it said would be forcibly placed in a quarantine facility at Rafah.

Palestinians bid farewell as they prepare to travel into Egypt after the Rafah border crossing was opened for three days for humanitarian cases, in the southern Gaza Strip April 12, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Since coronavirus emerged in China late last year, more than 105,000 confirmed case have been reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus has killed upwards of 3,550 people, most of them in China, though cases have been recorded in 101 countries and territories.

Governments around the globe have taken significant measures to prevent its spread.

The Hamas-run Education Ministry in Gaza announced on Sunday that classes would be canceled in schools and kindergartens for the coming five days after already calling them off on Saturday and Sunday. It said studies would resume this Saturday save any further “developments.”

Several universities in Gaza also announced late last week that they would suspend classes for a month.

Gaza cannot take on burden of many cases

Abdelnaser Soboh, the head of the WHO’s sub-office in Gaza, said that the territory was currently prepared to handle a small number of cases of coronavirus.

“Gaza is prepared to deal with the first bit of cases,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone call. “After that, it will need further support.”

The coastal enclave, according to Soboh, only possesses 50 kits to test for the virus and enough protective gear for medical professionals to treat 100 cases. He also said the Health Ministry built a field hospital at the Rafah crossing with equipment from the territory’s various medical facilities; he said it has 36 beds, including six critical care beds, and could be expanded to house 150.

Asked specifically whether Gaza could handle hundreds or thousands of cases, Soboh resoundingly responded in the negative.

Palestinian children carry water bottles in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on January 4, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

“The health system in Gaza is already shaky and barely functioning. It cannot take on the burden of a large number of cases,” he said, warning that such a scenario could contribute to its “collapse.”

“It is possible to convert a hospital into a facility to specifically treat coronavirus, but that will create problems for others,” he said, noting that it would affect persons waiting for surgery and other care.

Hospitals in Gaza frequently lack sufficient medications and medical equipment and often rely on backup generators to maintain a consistent flow of power.

Soboh said that the health institutions in Gaza carry a total of 2,500 beds and some 50-60 ventilators for adults.

One of the symptoms experienced by many diagnosed with the virus has been difficulty breathing.

“We believe it is important that we do everything we can to prevent rather than respond to the virus in Gaza,” he said.

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