Posted by Ali Qutmiera on April 23, 2020 in Blog

Palestinian worker sprays disinfectant against coronavirus around the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem next to Israel's separation barrier

A Palestinian sanitary worker sprays disinfectant to protect against coronavirus near Bethlehem,
in front of Israel's separation wall. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

One of the marked characteristics of COVID-19 is the pervasive nature of the virus, which has been able to paralyze leading economies, as well as developing and poorer countries alike. What the coronavirus crisis has brought to the forefront is the existing class inequities which greatly differentiate some societal factions’ ability to cope with the pandemic over others. While white-collar workers have the luxury of working from home, essential workers — many of whom work blue-collar, minimum-wage jobs — are in the field reinforcing their pivotal role as the very fabric of society. In no other time can we more clearly witness that our faith and society as a whole rest in those who sacrifice their health to keep industries afloat. 

Like all things, perspective is key. For some, American luxuries can be unfathomable in comparative terms, and in the case of the Palestinians, they are nearly unthinkable. In a place where lockdown is the norm, the Palestinian Territories confirmed the virus spread to parts of the West Bank in early March. Gaza was fortunate enough to receive its first cases on March 21. However, it was not long before the Territories recorded two deaths among the hundreds infected from the novel coronavirus. Given the fragility of both the West Bank and Gaza, citizens remain on edge due to a failing healthcare system that was severely under-resourced even before the pandemic. The emergence of a new, deadly foreign agent could be emblematic of the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. 

There’s no place like Gaza

The Gaza Strip, roughly the same size as San Francisco, is home to an estimated 1.9 million people. Within the confines of Gaza, there is little room for social distancing, as it is one of the poorest and most densely populated places on earth. In what can increasingly be considered an imminent disaster, it is unlikely the authorities in Gaza will be able to contain the virus, as stopping the spread is determined by screen testing and isolating those who test positive. To make matters worse, the confluence of lacking water and sewage infrastructure combined with a lackluster health care system makes it incredibly difficult to maintain the required health and hygiene standards during a pandemic. 

As of now, only 92 tests have been administered and a field hospital partly funded by the World Health Organization, which has been established at the Rafah Crossing (the sole crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip). The field hospital has a 38-bed treatment facility including 6 ICU beds. Regularly, Gaza has 70 ICU beds and 2,500 hospital beds, some of which are already occupied. 

Prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus, Gaza had a 30 percent shortage of disposable medical supplies and protective gear as a result of Israel’s blockade — it is only inevitable the coronavirus will worsen this situation. The Ministry of Health has reported that they are also short of ventilators and testing kits leaving the engulfed population as sitting ducks. 

Peace in the Holy Land?

To add to the chaos of 2020, the Palestinian Authority is now restricting the movement of its own citizens, “permitting people to leave their homes under a handful of circumstances such as going to the supermarket, health institutions among essential other places.” 

As coronavirus cases soar in Israel, Palestinians employed in Israel fear of bringing the virus back home to their towns. As many as 150,000 West Bank residents regularly work in Israel or on Israeli settlements, bringing in an estimated $2.5 billion a year, roughly 13% of total income. The Palestinian economy is now on the verge of disaster. With a concerning 15 percent unemployment rate in the West Bank alone, the Palestinian Authority does not have the resources to deal with a major crisis that would further exacerbate unemployment and poverty. It is quite the quagmire. 

Latest reports show collaboration between the Israeli and Palestinian governments attempting to salvage their ever so-intertwined economies while protecting their people. To assist the Palestinian Authority, Israel facilitated medical training and transferred 120 million shekels to the government, offering prospects of hope for cooperation in the future. In the United States, A group of Democratic senators led by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) issued a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ensure the Territories receive the necessary aid to combat the virus. U.S. aid to Palestine stopped in January 2018 and now senators fear, that the Administration is failing to take every reasonable step to help combat this public health emergency in the Palestinian Territories.” The European Union announced an assistance package of 71 million euros to combat the spread of the virus. 

The Palestinian Spirit Lives

Unhindered by obstacles, Palestinians have been proactive with the hand they were dealt. Taybeh Brewing Company has resorted to bottling hand sanitizer, a Gaza apparel factory and a Hebron shoemaker are now making surgical masks, and Al-Quds University has succeeded in developing a ventilator prototype. As always, existence precedes essence.