Palestinians in Gaza who tested positive for COVID-19 during the recent escalation with Israel struggled to care for their health and their families, amid both airstrikes and overwhelmed hospitals.
By Ahmed AL-SAMMAK
When Imad Alhour, 33, realized it was time to get admitted to the closest hospital treating COVID-19, he had to first figure out the safest route to avoid airstrikes. Next, he needed to hail a taxi.
Alhour lives in Gaza City and fell sick with coronavirus symptoms a few days before a violent escalation broke out between Israel and Gaza in May. His wife, Imran Namroti, 30, also had trouble breathing and a high fever. Neither had been tested, as Gaza’s scant laboratory supplies limits testing to only the sickest patients.
“We did not call any ambulances because they were just on duty to help people who were injured, and to find who was killed,” said Alhour.
The couple found a babysitter for their three children, their ages range between 3 and 8 years old. Once the kids were settled, they headed outside. After one hour of waiting, they flagged down a car.
“Finally,” Alhour said, “we managed to arrive at Al-Aqsa hospital,” one of the largest medical facilities in Gaza. “To avoid airstrikes,” they drove on “side streets, not through Salah al-Din Road, which is considered as the main highway in the Gaza Strip.”
The first doctor who treated the couple said they were not ill enough to get a COVID-19 test. “He refused to take any swabs from me and my wife and told us that they had only done this for extremely serious cases,” Alhour said. “I called my friend who works in the hospital and he helped us and took swabs.”
Their rapid test results “were supposed to take 30 minutes but it took 90 minutes because the hospital was full of people with injuries and the doctors were too busy,” he said.
Although the results were positive, after six hours the couple was released and sent home. The hospital was overwhelmed with injuries and critical COVID-19 patients and did not have the capacity to further treat them.
Over the next few days, their maladies worsened.
“We were suffering from COVID-19 symptoms and we could not reach the hospital again or to any doctor because of the heavy bombardments,” Alhour said. “You cannot imagine how difficult that was.” Ordinarily, he would comfort their children during deafening blasts. Gaza has experienced four major escalations with Israel since 2008, although this was the first that coincided with a pandemic.
“I did not know if my children had caught the virus or not since they had not had any symptoms,” he said.
“They used to scramble to me and my wife when hearing bombardments,” he said, adding the family initially tried to socially distance but in the end, made a decision to sleep in one room together during the more turbulent nights with overnight airstrikes. “I knew that being close to them was wrong but they were terrified of bombardments, so I had to be close to them and assure them that everything will be okay.”
“The coronavirus was not the priority for me, it was my children’s lives,” he said.
During the fighting that lasted from May 10 to May 21, Israeli forces killed 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, and damaged 50,000 houses, completely destroying 1,255 homes. At least 260 schools and 33 medical facilities also sustained damage. A joint assessment from the United Nations, European Union, and the World Bank found the total physical destruction cost $380 million, and Gaza incurred $190 million in economic losses. Recovery needs have been estimated at up to $485 million during the first 24 months.
At the height of hostilities, at least 120,000 Palestinians were displaced, one of them was Mohamoud Ghbayen, a 37-year-old father of five children. He sent his family to stay with relatives at the outset of violence. His home is in Beit Lehia in northern Gaza and a short way from the fence that separates the coastal enclave from Israel. Just beyond the fence, Israeli tanks fired artillery shells into the residential area.
The following day, “the Israeli army bombed my house with a warning missile,” Ghbayen said. “After 10 minutes, they decimated it with an F-16 warplane.”
With no place to live, Ghbayen went to a shelter in Shati beach refugee camp near the Mediterranean Sea. It was a repurposed school run by the United Nations. The rooms were cramped with two to three families in one of 40 classrooms. He, and eventually his kids who joined him there, where they slept on thin mattresses on the ground. “Until now I can only wonder why they destroyed my house since I am only a civilian with no military connection.”
Ghbayen noted that when he arrived at the school, there were around 300 people including women, children, and people with disabilities there, “with only six toilets to use.”
“If any of us were infected, all of us would have caught the virus. Our situation was really dreadful,” he said, later adding that “the coronavirus is not our [most pressing] issue now. All we want is to reconstruct our home.”
The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, gave them “one meal per person, per day” and “face masks, sanitizers, water, and bread.” Although he stressed that no protective measures and social distancing were practiced.
“People here lost their homes and they are deeply depressed,” he described. “The coronavirus did not matter to them.”
“I did my best to not have close contact with others, but I had to,” he explained. “The school is like a prison. My wife, Manal Ghbayen who is 32 years old, my children and I, and everyone here has psychological pressure.”
“We are fed up with these circumstances,” Ghbayen insisted. “We cannot handle this anymore, may Allah help us.”
Weeks after a ceasefire was brokered by Egypt, there are still 320 Palestinians at two UNRWA schools, said Adnan Abu Hasna, UNRWA’s media advisor in Gaza.
“UNRWA has been giving out masks, sanitizers, psychological support, and food,” he said, adding, “the situation was very serious as some schools were too crowded.”
Post-war Covid-19 wave
“The war badly affected the situation of the pandemic in Gaza,” said Dr. Majdy Dahir, the director of the preventive medicine department at the ministry of health in Gaza. His agency’s headquarters were hit in an airstrike and the debris from the impact caused severe damage to the main COVID-19 laboratory in the next building over, shutting it down for nine days.
There are only two labs in Gaza that process PCR tests. Rapid tests are run out of four governmental satellite locations and 22 UNRWA health centers.
In early May, the coastal enclave was in recovery from a second wave. Now, Dahir estimated a third is on the rise, with more than 90% of all new COVID-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian territory coming from Gaza. Yet according to the World Health Organization, only 93,673 of Gaza’s population of just over 2 million are vaccinated.
According to data from the ministry of health, in the immediate aftermath of hostilities in May, Gaza’s positivity rate spiked to nearly 30%.
When asked if Gaza’s ministry of health can tackle the third wave, a spokesperson for the ministry, Ashraf Qedra explained: “We have 500 beds for COVID-19 patients which were not all occupied during the first and second wave.”
According to the ministry of health on Thursday, 115,483 Palestinians in Gaza have tested positive for COVID-19. There are currently 1,440 active cases and 1,078 have died from COVID-19 related causes.