COVID-19 Could Be Catastrophic for Us: Notes From Gaza

I have to admit that when I heard there was a new virus spreading through China a few months ago, I didn’t pay much attention. After all, China is far away. It’s a country with advanced medical and technological capabilities. Surely, it would overcome the virus.

When the disease spread to other countries and the number of infected people gradually climbed, naturally, I became more concerned. Still, I didn’t worry personally. I thought the virus wouldn’t make it into Gaza because it’s been under blockade for 13 years. We have no airports or sea ports. No world travelers come here, and we don’t exit anyway. Until about three weeks ago, when I heard the news about cases discovered in Israel and Bethlehem. Then I got really worried and scared. How did this blasted disease get here so fast?

As soon as the first cases were discovered, the authorities in Ramallah and in Gaza began preparing to take preventive measures against the virus, including restrictions on movement and school shutdowns. This increased my sense that we were in grave danger, especially given the siege and the harsh living conditions in the Strip. We live in severe overcrowding, especially in the refugee camps. If, heaven forbid, there is an outbreak here, it would be a catastrophe with horrifying outcomes, mostly because Gaza doesn’t have the capacity to admit and treat a large number of infected patients, and the healthcare system has no way to protect us. There is no equipment, no labs, no medications. There are not enough hospital beds, and there are no ICUs. And that’s even before the pandemic.

Then, about a week ago, as I was browsing online news sites, I was struck by the report of the first two corona patients diagnosed in the Gaza Strip. I was in shock. I was overcome with anxiety for my fate, my children’s, my family’s, and all of Gaza’s residents. I went into high alert mode. I stopped working, except in really critical cases. I bought disinfectants, detergents and food, in case total isolation was announced and the markets shut down. I started making sure my family observed strict precautions: no handshaking, no leaving the house, constant hand washing, eating vegetables, taking vitamins.

This pandemic is dangerous. When it comes, it doesn’t knock on the door. My kids are frightened. They ask with a worried look, “What happened to us?” They keep asking when all of this will end, when we’ll return to our normal lives, to school. I don’t answer them because I have no answers. I see the fear in their eyes, especially my daughter Zeinah, who’s twelve. She says to me, “Mama, don’t go to work. Don’t go visit anyone. Stay with us,” and, speaking for everyone, she declares: “We don’t want to go out. I’m scared of corona!” She has shut herself in her room and leaves only occasionally to wash and disinfect her hands. My father is an old man, he’s 73, and I’m very worried about him. I call him a few times a day to ask how he’s doing and get some reassurance. I call my brothers, friends and neighbors too.

Shut in from the outside, shut in from the inside

So far, all corona patients who have been discovered (totaling 12) have been isolated far away from people in a facility near Rafah Crossing. The authorities here have organized several of these facilities – schools and hotels – to isolate people coming into Gaza through the crossings, but these places are not adapted for corona patients.

I’m very worried about the fate of Gaza’s residents too. Given the situation here, after 13 years of continuous siege and horrific rounds of fighting, it’s almost impossible to prepare and to protect from infection: people have no money to buy food for a long isolation or detergents and disinfectants, and even in ordinary times there’s a shortage of the most basic things – water and electricity. It’s particularly complicated because even for those who are considered as having a regular income, that’s no longer the case: salaries, welfare pensions, the grant from Qatar, the UNRWA food rations – everything is on hold.

Gaza’s streets are deserted. Everything is closed: schools, universities, hotels, banquet halls, coffee shops and even mosques. When I’m outside, I look at people’s expressions – I see worry and panic. It’s completely understandable – they’re barely able to protect themselves and their loved ones.

I sit on the balcony and look at the handful of people who are out in the street, the neighbors, the children who are playing and laughing as if there were nothing wrong. A group of men sit down at the entrance to our building, talking loudly about the situation. One of them asks me to take pictures of them and post them on Facebook. “They’re telling us to stay home, to buy disinfectants and detergents when we don’t have a dime to our name,” he says. “How are we going to stay home anyway? There’s no electricity. Tell, tell the world about how Gazans are doing under corona and the cruel siege.”

Don’t forsake us

Look at us. We’re under siege, and now the world is under siege like us. Isn’t it time to lift the cruel blockade off the Gaza Strip and save its residents? Don’t Gaza’s residents deserve to breathe freedom like the rest of the world? How can you forsake us to face this outbreak alone after 13 years of blockade and war, with devastating poverty, soaring unemployment and destroyed infrastructure? Has your conscience run dry? The world has to come to its senses and save the two million people Israel continues to imprison in Gaza – before a disaster happens.

In the meantime, I keep following the news. With an aching heart, I follow the dire situation in many countries in the world, especially Italy and Spain. I pray for them with tears in my eyes, asking God to have mercy on us, on all of humanity, and hoping to hear that they’ve found a cure for the coronavirus, that they’ve gotten it under control and stopped the spread, that all corona patients in the world have recovered – because then, the anxiety gripping us all will evaporate, and the whole world will awaken from the nightmare.

Olfat al-Kurd is B’Tselem’s field researcher in the Gaza Strip.

The above originally appeared in Hebrew on Mako.