Gaza miraculously spared by COVID-19, but new cases are worrying, says local pastor
A woman who travelled to Jerusalem and four relatives are the first local cases due to a flaw in the territory’s monitoring and quarantine that had hitherto prevented the virus from spreading. Gaza authorities have imposed a strict lockdown, confined residents to their homes and closed beaches. Water shortages and a health system already crippled by the embargo are a source of concern.
Gaza City (AsiaNews) – So far the Gaza Strip has been miraculously spared from the COVID-19 pandemic thanks in part to the authorities’ "intelligent approach" to the fight against the coronavirus. Hopefully, the virus “will not spread” despite "overcrowding and the way people live”. Should this be the case, it will be "another miracle," said Fr Gabriel Romanelli, an Argentine-born parish priest of the Incarnate Word in Gaza.
Speaking to AsiaNews, a hopeful, cautiously optimistic, yet somewhat fearful clergyman notes that “difficult times lie ahead, especially for the weakest,” this following the lockdown recently imposed in the Palestinian territory. “We are fine for the moment," he explained.
The latest case does not involve outsiders. Due to a monitoring failure, the person in question, a woman, is said to have “accompanied a sick person across the border for a very short time but that was enough. A few days ago, she realised she was infected.”
Hamas, which controls Gaza, reacted promptly, imposing a strict lockdown two days ago, which will likely “be extended for the next few days,” Fr Romanelli said. However, the possibility that the virus might spread across the Strip is worrisome given its conditions.
Often referred to as an "open-air prison", its health system is substandard and it lacks state-of-the-art equipment. Now schools, churches, mosques, offices, businesses, even the beaches, are off-limits. Given the “blockade and isolation” imposed on Gaza, beaches “are a precious outlet".
So far, the blockade of the borders with Israel and Egypt have kept the coronavirus at bay, with the odd case coming from the outside and contained thanks to strict quarantine measures, like three weeks of isolation in special centres set up by the local authorities.
This held up until a few days ago, when a woman who travelled to Jerusalem for medical reasons and four relatives, who live in one of the most crowded refugee camps in the Strip, tested positive.
A Hamas spokesperson acknowledged that the situation was serious, compounded by the lack of medical supplies and sufficient testing kits. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Gaza hospitals have a capacity of 350 beds for COVID-19 patients for a population of 2.2 million.
Until recently "we have not had a rigid lockdown,” Fr Romanelli said. Between March and May, people could go out. “We from the parish could even visit families following all the necessary health measures, including masks, gel, sanitiser, and social distance to avoid contagion.”
Between June and August "we were able to restart some activities. Schools too reopened to offer remedial courses and lessons to complete the school programme”.
No summer camps were held. On average, they attract at least 300 young people and children every year, but “we sponsored trips and initiatives for groups of 50, 60 people.”
“We had no cases of infection in schools.” Fr Romanelli said. Above all, “Students welcomed the reopening”. After months “of closures, people had a hard time getting along. The lockdown had a negative human, psychological and spiritual impact.”
“Getting back together in class and playing were also a way of having fun. The first few days, the children seemed disoriented, partly because of a lack of mental stimulus, then the situation improved.”
Now "the third stage has arrived, where one cannot even leave home. This is a serious problem, especially in overcrowded families.” Still, people are used to lockdown and isolation and can put up with “four hours of electricity".
The situation is different for water, “which continues to be in short supply.” This is "long-standing problem.” Likewise, stocks of medical drugs could prove insufficient if the virus starts to spread.
“Our health system was already weak before,” Fr Romanelli noted. “The authorities have been good at strengthening it since COVID-19 began, but I don't know how long it can hold up.
“We continue to follow the instructions and take all necessary precautions, but we are in God's hands. Hopefully, the virus does not do too much damage.”