oPt: Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°78 – Gaza’s New Coronavirus Fears

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What’s new? After months during which authorities halted COVID-19’s spread with rigorous quarantine measures, the virus appears to have taken root in the Gaza Strip. Dozens of new cases are being diagnosed every day.

Why does it matter? A major outbreak in Gaza would likely be disastrous. Years of conflict and Israeli blockade have left the strip’s health care facilities in a parlous state. Enforcing lockdowns and social distancing is difficult in the densely populated enclave.

What should be done? Israel should take urgent steps to both allow Gaza to acquire the medical supplies it needs to deal with COVID-19 and let the strip’s residents who are seriously ill travel abroad to seek care. Donor countries should heed the calls of local and international organisations for financial and medical assistance.

I. Overview

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is reaching a crisis point after health authorities reported four cases of community-spread coronavirus on 24 August. Fears are growing that the virus containment policy in place since early in the pandemic has failed. Health organisations have long warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza would be catastrophic: the strip simply does not have enough ventilators or other crucial instruments to save lives if numerous residents contract the disease. It is crucial that the Israeli government allow Gaza to import necessary medicines and medical equipment, including ventilators; refrain from withholding fuel and other goods necessary to alleviate humanitarian suffering; and facilitate the exit of patients requiring medical assistance outside Gaza. Donor countries should heed the call of local and international organisations, including the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which are scrambling to provide medical and other services to vulnerable communities throughout the strip.

II. The Virus Appears in Earnest

On 24 August, four individuals tested positive for COVID-19 in al-Maghazi refugee camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip – the first cases of infection recorded outside the quarantine facilities constructed by the Hamas government in February for travellers entering the territory. The four were members of the same family; they were tested after a relative, a middle-aged woman who had left the strip to escort her daughter to al-Maqased hospital in East Jerusalem five days prior, tested positive for the virus upon arrival there. It remains unclear when and how she contracted the virus, and to whom in Gaza she may have passed it on before her departure other than her immediate relatives.