Palestine’s COVID-19 surge: Five key questions answered by MAP’s Gaza Director

The occupied Palestinian territory is currently experiencing another worrying surge in cases of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant of the disease, particularly in Gaza. We asked Fikr Shalltoot, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s Gaza Director, to answer five key questions about what this means for Gaza’s beleaguered health system and how MAP is responding on the ground.

1)What is the current COVID-19 situation in Gaza and what are your concerns?

Gaza is in the midst of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last 24 hours, there have been more than 1,300 new cases, with 244 people in critical care and eight deaths. We are concerned that the virus is putting a further strain on Gaza’s overwhelmed healthcare system and having a devastating toll on the wellbeing of healthcare workers.

We are also concerned that Israel’s 14-year illegal closure and blockade of Gaza is causing severe shortages of essential medicines and equipment. With just over 370,000 people in Gaza receiving their vaccination, only around 18% of the population, and only 81,000 people receiving both doses, we are worried that the virus will continue to spread throughout this densely-populated area.

2)How is MAP responding to the situation?

We have been supporting the Ministry of Health (MoH)’s COVID-19 response. Since March 2020, we have provided personal protective equipment for frontline health workers, hospital oxygen generators, drugs, laboratory testing materials, disinfectants, and Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) devices and their related medical disposables to improve clinical outcomes for patients with severe COVID-19 health issues.

We are now looking to procure more lifesaving medical supplies, including more drugs and laboratory materials related to case management, to support the MoH’s COVID-19 response.

3)How are MAP’s activities affected?

We have been working hard to adapt and expand our vital support. Due to COVID-19 and the travel restrictions accompanying it, MAP has halted all medical missions that were urgently needed to support the delivery of life-saving surgical interventions and supporting and training Palestinian healthcare workers. We have only been able to carry out one medical mission so far in 2021, but our UK-based expert volunteers have been providing online support to their counterparts in Gaza. We also faced difficulties in prices and deliveries of medicines and medical equipment, due to the global impact of COVID-19.

For some projects, MAP had to cancel activities due to social distancing conditions, but also worked with our partners to adapt and deliver new awareness raising and advocacy activities, and provide hygiene items to keep people safe. In addition, MAP had to divert additional finances from its emergency reserve to respond to COVID-19, affecting some of the vulnerable groups who we had been previously supporting.

4)What are the effects on the healthcare system?

Following the 11-day Israeli military offensive on Gaza in May, there was extensive damage and destruction to the healthcare system, including to COVID-19 testing and vaccination facilities. The healthcare system has not even begun to recover from these latest attacks. For example, the designated vaccination facility for people in the north of Gaza is yet to be re-built. With each crisis that Gaza faces, its healthcare system is being pushed further and further toward the brink of collapse.

The knock-on effects of COVID-19 also mean the cancelling of outpatient clinics and stopping of essential elective surgeries. The MoH in Gaza also had to convert one large trauma hospital serving the southern areas of Gaza into a COVID-19 facility, which fragmented the services provided by this hospital and increased overcrowding in other hospitals.

5)What is the outlook for the upcoming months?

In the past few weeks, there have been some positive signs around vaccinations, with a dedicated vaccination drive which has seen more people vaccinated between 25 August to 9 September than in the entire six-month period before that when vaccinations first started. But this was a short spur of activity and has since been stopped by the MoH due to the low availability of vaccinations in Gaza. The vaccination rates also remain disturbingly low and unequal when compared to those in Israel, which has seen more than 80 per cent of its population vaccinated.

For as long as the suffocating blockade and illegal closure of Gaza continues, it is hard to be optimistic about the future. The healthcare system will never be able to fully recover from repeated attacks, let alone develop sustainably, without a full lifting of the blockade.

21 September 2021

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