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16th Apr 2024

Interview

Can Gaza avert a coronavirus 'nightmare'?

  • Palestinians jokingly 'welcomed the rest of the world to living under a blockade' (Photo: Marcin Monko)

"Nightmare" and "catastrophe" - that is what a coronavirus outbreak in Gaza would look like in the words of a top UN official.

But even if the virus is kept out, the pandemic's financial impact could push it over the edge.

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  • Matthias Schmale, UNWRA's operations director in Gaza (Photo: un.org)

"If there was a local outbreak, it would be a nightmare and a major catastrophe," Matthias Schmale, the UN's director of operations in Gaza, told EUobserver from Gaza City on Wednesday (15 April).

An outbreak could quickly spread because the strip was the world's most densely-populated place, where it was normal for families of 12 or more, including children and elderly relatives, to live in two-bedroom flats, he said.

They have nowhere to flee from infection because of Israel's blockade.

Many are weakened by malnourishment.

And Gaza has only 87 adult intensive care beds with ventilators for its 2 million people, meaning its health service would be "overwhelmed" if just 2,000 or so got sick, Schmale warned.

The nightmare could also include fresh violence on the Israeli border.

"If desperate people had nowhere to escape an outbreak, or they were ill, knowing the only medical facilities were on the Israeli side, they would try to cross the fence," the UN official said.

"Based on previous experience, it's not unreasonable to assume Israeli forces would open fire," he added.

Israeli forces maimed thousands of Palestinians in the past two years by shooting at people's legs at border protests called Marches of Great Return.

They also shot dead over 200 of the Gaza protesters, Schmale said.

His agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), is helping Gaza authorities to stop the virus.

There are just 13 known cases of infection so far. All of them are people who came in from outside and who were quarantined.

But there were 2,500 more waiting to enter at the Rafah crossing point with Egypt, with some 200 a day being let through, Schmale said.

And those numbers will increase as Gaza workers in Egypt come home for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which starts on 23 April.

For now, all people who enter are quarantined in special facilities, such as empty hotels.

Gaza has also closed mosques, schools, and restaurants, while urging families to self-isolate, in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) advice.

The strip is ruled by a de facto government in the hands of Hamas, an Islamist militant group which the EU designates as a "terrorist" entity.

There were "hard-liners and hot heads" in both Hamas and Israel who risked making matters worse, Schmale said.

But there were also civil servants in Gaza who were "genuinely interested in providing good services for their people," he said.

Occupation humour

Streets were quiet in Gaza City, he noted, even though there was no hard lockdown.

And Palestinians have a sense of humour about their fate.

People "welcomed the rest of the world to living under a blockade" in jokes on social media, for instance, Schmale noted.

Gaza was no longer the world's largest prison, but its largest quarantine zone, they said.

And they thanked Israel for protecting them from global problems.

But for all that, Gaza is a place on edge and the financial impact of coronavirus could be a step too far even if a local outbreak never happens.

It would be "unliveable" by 2020, as water and electricity supplies collapsed, the UN warned eight years ago.

More than 1.5m people survived on food aid, but were getting fewer than half the minimum daily calories they needed according to WHO recommendations, Matthias Burchard, the head of UNWRA's office in Brussels, also told EUobserver.

"There's evidence of stunting in children due to malnutrition," he said.

Unemployment is 50 percent, but the coronavirus slowdown will push it to 70 percent, UNWRA expects.

Many of those losing jobs are vulnerable day labourers.

"What they earn that day, they spend on food for their family that day," Burchard said.

And at the same time, Palestinian diaspora remittances are dwindling, due to the global economic crunch.

EU backyard

For its part, the EU, in March, wired the whole €82m it had set aside for UNWRA donations this year.

UNWRA also provides food, medical services, and schools for over 4 million other Palestinian refugees in camps in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

"The EU has advanced funds which were already in the pipeline. We're really grateful, but it's not enough, and we've applied for additional funding," Burchard said.

EU talks on its 2021-2027 budget were "delicate", as Europe headed into a recession of immense proportions, he noted.

But if conflict zones in the EU neighbourhood, such as Libya or Gaza, were left to rot, it would harm Europe's "security and strategic interests", he said.

"In Gaza, there's no plan B, no back-up," the UN official added, on the scenario of a coronavirus wildfire.

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