Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster

Global Futures: Uncertainty, Displacement, Security

Struggling with pandemic and blockade: The unique challenges of COVID-19 for people in besieged Gaza

By Li Qi

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic is hard, but it can be much harder for people in the besieged Gaza Strip. Since 2007 when Hamas, an Islamist militant group, took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict land, sea, and air blockade on Gaza to put pressure on Hamas. Even before the pandemic, the living conditions in Gaza were almost unbearable due to the long-lasting blockade and high population density. The current COVID-19 crisis puts additional strains on Gaza’s fragile health system, shattered economy, and collective social fabric. Caught between COVID-19 surges and Israel’s siege, Gaza faces unique challenges in combating the pandemic.

At the beginning, Israel’s blockade ironically helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Gaza given severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Cases of COVID-19 were not discovered until 21 March 2020. The Hamas government also imposed strict control measures, such as prohibiting social gatherings, closing non-essential business, and implementing mandatory 21-day isolation at designated quarantine centers for all people returning to the strip by way of Israel and Egypt. For several months, these efforts kept the worst of the coronavirus out of Gaza. As of 20 August 2020, there were 109 confirmed cases in total, all detected among people in quarantine centers. However, four individuals from the same family were tested positive outside the quarantine centers on 24 August, indicating that community transmission was occurring in the strip. Since then, Gaza has faced a surge of COVID-19 cases and recorded more than 51,312 confirmed cases, including 4,485 active cases, and 522 deaths by 31 January 2021, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health-Gaza. Given the lack of testing kits, the reported number of COVID-19 cases may be substantially underestimated.

Gaza’s high population density partly explains why COVID-19 spreads so quickly in the enclave. As a narrow strip along the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Nearly 2 million Palestinians, including 1.4 million refugees, are squeezed into a tiny enclave of 141 square miles (365 square kilometers). Social distancing is almost impossible to implement in such a crowded place where it is common to have 30 or 40 people living in the same house. “So, a lot of families, they think that it is just a matter of time. We are going to get it [COVID-19] anyway. And it is a matter of luck or a matter of faith whether we are going to have the difficult, let me say, symptoms of the infection or the not so difficult symptoms of the infection,” says Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, general director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. The formidable challenge of practicing social distancing in Gaza has made many people careless about social distancing measures. “Because they think these are not helping a lot. Because they cannot maintain it [social distancing]. And in the same time, they are not fighting it [COVID-19]. We are going to get the infection sooner or later.”

Before the surge of COVID-19 cases in Gaza, health experts expressed concerns about the collapse of Gaza’s already fragile health system if the highly contagious coronavirus spun out of control. Now, worst fears come true. The 14-year-long blockade has resulted in a dilapidated health care infrastructure and a severe shortage of medical resources in Gaza. With 2 million residents, Gaza only has about 200 ventilators. Hospitals are overwhelmed with the rise in COVID-19 cases and unable to care for all critical cases given the limited capacity. The protracted electricity crisis further compounds the difficult situation. As a result of political tensions in Gaza, electricity is only available for roughly 8 hours each day. The lack of electricity severely influences the provision of medical services and operation of life-sustaining medical devices. People look forward to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to help them return to “normal”, but the main problem is when vaccines will arrive in Gaza. Despite that Israel is leading the world in vaccinating its population, millions of Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip are left behind. Even when vaccines become available in Gaza, it is hard to imagine how to store and distribute refrigerated vaccines in a place where 24-hour electricity is still a distant dream.

Gaza’s dire economic conditions add another layer of complexity to the fraught process of dealing with the pandemic. The longstanding blockade and recurrent armed conflicts between Israel and Hamas have devastated Gaza’s economy. More than one million Gazans live below the poverty line and rely on humanitarian assistance for basic services, such as food and medical supplies. Even before the pandemic, Gaza had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, with nearly half of its population unemployed. When the Hamas-run government imposes strict restrictive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the lockdowns put new burdens on Gaza’s deteriorating economy and long-suffering Palestinians. Many people who once lived hand-to-mouth, such as construction workers and taxi drivers, lose their jobs as a result of the economic repercussions of the pandemic and lockdowns. Up to now, the unemployment rate has sharply increased to 82% in Gaza. To continue the lockdown or not to continue? It is a tough question the Hamas government faces during the pandemic. To stay at home or go out to work? It is also a hard choice Gazans need to make. However, people have little choice but to work. “People need to go out to work, to go out to earn some money, to be able to feed your family. And this all leads to that [COVID-19] increase,” says Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei.

The ongoing pandemic also imposes new burdens on Gaza’s social fabric. Palestinian communities are knitted together by a strong sense of shared identity and family solidarity. People generally maintain close relationships with their extended families and help each other to get through hard times. Indeed, relying on close others for support has become one of the main ways for Gazans to cope with the tight blockade and repeated military operations. However, as the socio-economic situations and living conditions have continued to deteriorate, the COVID-19 crisis poses a serious challenge to the functionality of family-based support systems in Gaza. “With time, people do not have that reservoir of being capable of giving, because you were exhausted, emotionally exhausted. You are economically challenged, economically deprived. There is almost nothing that is left there in order to give others,” says Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei. “That’s why the conditions are getting worse and worse”.

Caught between the pandemic and Israeli’s blockade, long-suffering Palestinians in Gaza face enormous challenges in staying healthy and sustaining livelihoods. Like people living in other places, Gazans should live in dignity. They have the right to live a better life and get better health care. The current situation must be changed in ways that lead to justice and peace eventually.

(Based on the interview with Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei)

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