Palestinians fight to survive in Gaza’s COVID-19 unit

Palestinians wait to bury the body of their relative, who died after contracting COVID-19, at a cemetery, east of Gaza City on April 20, 2021. (Photo: Reuters)
Palestinians wait to bury the body of their relative, who died after contracting COVID-19, at a cemetery, east of Gaza City on April 20, 2021. (Photo: Reuters)
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories — Slumped in a hospital bed, his face obscured by an oxygen mask in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients in the Gaza Strip, Hussein al-Hajj said he wanted to talk. اضافة اعلان

Vaccinations are essential, but I’m going to have to survive the virus before getting vaccinated,” the 71-year-old retired Palestinian teacher told AFP through strained breaths.  

In the strip, a Palestinian territory under strict Israeli blockade since 2007, the pandemic has been defined by contrast. 

Through its early months roughly a year ago, the enclave’s Hamas rulers largely succeeded in limiting significant viral spread.

Access to Gaza was already restricted through Israeli and Egyptian controlled crossings, and Hamas imposed strict quarantines on everyone who sought entry. 

But in August the first cases were recorded outside quarantine centers, raising fears of catastrophe given the strip’s weak health infrastructure.

Now, as Israel broadly re-opens thanks to a world-leading vaccination effort, the strip’s vulnerable health system is overwhelmed. 

Hajj was admitted to a Turkish funded hospital, built in 2017 on land where polluted stagnant water often pools. 

The white-haired Hajj was among a group of mostly elderly, male patients curled up on beds and intubated under the care of an overstretched medical team. 

“My wife and I contracted corona. She stayed in quarantine at home, but I have lung problems, so first I was brought to the hospital, then here,” he said in a whisper, referring to the makeshift ICU. 

“It’s a question of life and death. Things can deteriorate at any moment.”

Health authorities in the strip say the situation turned more dire following the emergence last month of the more contagious British variant, which fueled a surge in cases among youth. 

“The situation is critical,” said Rami Al-Abadelah, director of infectious diseases at the strip’s health ministry. 

Last week the enclave of some 2 million people registered a pandemic record 23 deaths in a day.  Around 850 Gazans have died from COVID-19, while the territory is expected to cross the 100,000 case threshold within days. 

The resource-strapped authorities are conducting about 3,200 tests a day and the 36 percent positive rate is among the highest in the world, according to WHO

“Officially we have about 1,000 (new) cases a day, but it’s probably 5,000 or more because people don’t go to the hospital or call us to say if they have symptoms,” Abadelah said. 

Samer Mansour, head nurse at the ICU, said when the unit opened only one of the nine beds was occupied. 

Now the beds are “always full,” with about 40 percent of patients under 50, he added. 

Hamas has tried to contain transmission by imposing a 7:00pm curfew, an effort to prevent large gatherings for evening meals during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. 

But relief from mass vaccination remains a distant prospect. 

The UN and rights groups have said that Israel has a legal obligation to ensure vaccine supply to the strip, as the power responsible for the crippling blockade. Israel has baulked at such calls, insisting the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank is responsible for all vaccinations. 

For Gazans, that means relying on the authority which has faced a series of procurement challenges. “We have received 110,000 doses but we need an additional 2.6 million,” Abadelah said. 

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