Doctors preach at mosques, weddings delayed, and businesses struggle as Gaza braces for coronavirus spread

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A year ago Mosab Ramlawi and his fiance picked their wedding date for three weeks from now, mid-April, yet like many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip with plans to get married, he is worried the emergency measures announced by health officials to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus will force him to cancel. He tried to move up his wedding date to earlier this month to have the wedding before mass closures were ordered across the strip, but officials closed all event venues until the end of the month.

At this point, Ramlawi, 20, has postponed printing invitations. Instead of planning his nuptials he is closely monitoring instructions from Palestinian leaders.

Authorities in Gaza have closed wedding halls as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, in Gaza City, on March 22, 2020. (Photo: Yasser Qudih/APA Images)
Authorities in Gaza have closed wedding halls as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, in Gaza City, on March 22, 2020. (Photo: Yasser Qudih/APA Images)

Ammar Abu Sarar, 37, rents a two-story wedding hall in al-Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza that is about twice the size of a tennis court. Wedding season in Gaza typically runs from spring to late summer. At this time last year, he had between 15 to 20 bookings during the month of March earning around $270 per event. But his business has been forced to shutter amid the pandemic and health guidelines that closed non-essential businesses. For the reservations, he still has on the books, he cut his prices by $100 to deal with a worsening economic situation across the strip.

With all weddings canceled for the next few weeks, Abu Sarar now wonders if his business can survive the losses.

Mohammed Safi, 33 years old, is also in the wedding business. He runs a photography studio in Gaza. All of his customers, impacted by developments of the possible outbreak of the Coronavirus in the coastal enclave, have canceled their sessions.

Gaza reported it’s first two cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, and 57 have tested positive in the West Bank, of whom 40 have recovered. All of the cases are mild or moderate.

While the spread of the respiratory disease is relatively contained in Gaza, there is widespread fear the health infrastructure is woefully underprepared to handle an outbreak. The situation in the Gaza Strip differs from the rest of the world. Gaza is a small, believed to be the most densely populated area in the world, with more than two million Palestinians living there. It has been under an Egyptian and Israeli siege for more than a decade, resulting in low stocks of medications, medical devices and protective gear for healthcare workers.

Gaza’s ministry of health told the Associated Press Gaza needs an additional 100 ventilators to meet the projected demand. There are currently 62 oxygen ventilators dispersed throughout the strip, yet 15 are already in use by critical care patients.

Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the ministry of health in the Gaza Strip, said on Friday the only laboratory capable of testing for COVID-19 conducted 82 tests of suspected cases. At that time, all were negative.

“The idea of further strain on an already stretched and fragile health care system is worrying,” said ICRC health delegate in Gaza, Monika Gygax, in a statement to Mondoweiss.

“Today, as hospitals require 24-hour electricity, the chronic fuel and energy crisis in Gaza means that hospitals lack a regular power source, and, given the regular and daily electricity cuts, rely heavily on generators, which are being overused,” ICRC spokesperson Suhair Zakkout said. “ Their overuse also means that the generators require more frequent repairs and spare parts, not to mention additional fuel.”

Palestinians returning from aboard have been forced to go into quarantine for 14-days as a preventative measure to delay and contain the arrival of coronavirus.

The ministry of health in the Gaza Strip allocated schools and hotels for quarantine purposes with the Hamas-run government building another 1,000 quarantine units in the Gaza Strip, 500 in the south and 500 in the north. Three hundred construction workers have been hired to have the units ready by March 27.

In total, more than 2,000 Palestinians are in isolation. At government facilities, 1,198 are quarantined in 18 different sites, noting that medical teams have provided services to 425 people at the quarantine centers. The ministry of health ordered self-quarantine at home for another 637 Palestinian returning to the Gaza Strip where no symptoms were recorded.

The United Nations opened the doors of 17 of its schools as temporary health centers, treating patients who have breathing and lung problems.

Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesperson for UNRWA, said in a press statement on Tuesday, “The agency took into account in the selection of schools they should be closed to most of the population of all the refugee camps, in each camp.”

Palestinian workers disinfect the streets, as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus, in Gaza City on March 22, 2020. Authorities in Gaza confirmed the first two cases of novel coronavirus, identifying the individuals as Palestinians who had travelled to Pakistan and were held in quarantine on their return. The United Nations has warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza could be disastrous, given the high poverty rates and weak health system in the coastal strip under Israeli blockade since 2007. Authorities in Gaza have said that more than 2,700 Palestinians are in home-isolation, mostly people who had returned from Egypt. Photo by Ashraf Amra

Awareness campaigns were launched in all governorates across the Gaza Strip on Friday. The ministry of endowments and religious affairs assigned doctors to deliver sermons on “healthy habits” to prevent the spread of infection at mosques in Gaza that have not yet shuttered. Days ago the ministry carried out mass serialization at houses of worship.

Youth groups self-initiated a campaign to sterilize public places, mosques, streets, and shops. University students sterilize tightly hemmed walls and surfaces in crowded refugee camps.

Municipalities in the Gaza Strip also conduct daily sterilization in commercial areas.

Some families have decided to take measures on their own and go beyond recommendations for social distancing for healthy individuals and go into self-isolation.

Younes Eid, a dentist who lives in the tightly packed al-Burij refugee camp in central Gaza said he plans to keep himself and three children aged 7 months to 8 years at home until the entire pandemic passes its peak. He stocked up on their daily needs and is keeping his children from interacting with their peers.

Ahmad and Fatma Abdallah are holed up in a one-bedroom apartment in al-Nusierat refugee camp with their two children in voluntary self-isolation. Their 9-year-old daughter Sama’s school run by the United Nations is shut down and their 5-year-old son Mohammed is being kept home from kindergarten.

Both kids carry a hand sanitizer on their person inside the home, as directed by their mother, who is a medical technologist at a lab.

Mohammed does not understand why he can’t go to his school and see his friends. Speaking to Mondoweiss over the telephone, Fatma said her son keeps asking her, “why does the kindergarten bus no longer pick me up?” telling her he “feels bored at home and wants to learn and play with his friends.”

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