Gaza parish priest: Israel’s blockade has stopped COVID-19, but the alert remains

Fr Romanelli notes that the Strip’s lockdown has favoured “greater control" over crossings. So far, 12 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the Palestinian territory, all people crossing the border from Egypt. Gazans have been used to restrictions for years. Masses are streamed online. Families received pastoral visits and the Eucharist.

Gaza (AsiaNews) – Israel’s 13-year blockade has unexpectedly “had a positive effect” because "it has allowed greater control over border crossings" and contained the novel coronavirus pandemic, this according to Fr Gabriel Romanelli, Gaza’s Argentine-born parish priest.

The clergyman, who is a member of Institute of the Incarnate Word, explained that Gaza residents “are not living this situation with anxiety", but they are "becoming aware" of the gravity of what is happening elsewhere, like in Italy or Spain.

"The absence of port or an airport and open borders, as well as tourism or religious pilgrimages have limited the spread” of the virus, said Fr Romanelli.

Gaza has reported so far 12 COVID-19 cases, including two people who returned from Egypt just yesterday. The two were placed in quarantine immediately. The Health Ministry of the Hamas-controlled Gaza administration said that their conditions were “stable and reassuring”.

All the confirmed cases involve people returning from other countries, checked at the border, and prevented from moving within the territory, thus minimising the risk of spreading the virus.

“Official figures indicate 12 cases, all at the border with Egypt,” said Fr Romanelli. The novel coronavirus “has ravaged” other parts of the world. “Here too, new cases are reported every day. A week ago, we had two; now there are 12.”

“School has been cancelled; working hours, reduced. And in the parish, we try to do things via remote means.”

Hamas, which has controlled the Strip since 2007, has taken precautionary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the small enclave, home to two million people.

Public meetings have been banned; schools, universities, public parks and places of worship, including mosques, have been closed.

The territory’s health system is cause for concern though. There are only 70 beds in intensive care and 62 ventilators. NGOs and pro human rights activists are calling for an end to restrictions on the entry of humanitarian and medical aid.

In this time of crisis, two young Palestinians from Beit Lahia, north of the Strip, retooled an old factory to manufacture protective gear to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Former employees are happy with the initiative.

“This quarantine has not surprised or affected the hearts of residents,” said Fr Romanelli. “We have given the authorities our advice; we follow the rules.” People “have been living with restrictions for years. They are used to staying at home for weeks. No one has called in for depression or complained that their life was turned upside down. Freedom was already limited and so nothing has changed.”

Religious authorities, starting with Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, “took the necessary measures in time". Parish activities have been on hold for almost a month; even Masses are restricted.

“Anyone who wants to come to church can pray, but my advice is to stay at home,” noted Fr Romanelli. “We visit the sick and the elderly. We have started to visit families bringing the Eucharist. The celebrations are streamed online and next Sunday, Palm Sunday, after the service, we will visit people and give them olive branches.”

“Despite the hardships, we try to keep up our spirit. Inability to go to church hasn’t prevented us from praying; on the contrary. This trial shall pass, but we must not give in to circumstances. We must keep our ways.”

"Providence hasn’t abandoned us. We know this very well, especially since we often had to cope with shortages of food, drinking water and electricity.” Despite everything, “we keep going anyway.”