The controversial Gaza Strip housing that is holding 600,000 Palestinian refugees in eight camps has so far reported 72 cases, 45 recoveries and one death related to the coronavirus as of June 17. With Israel and the West Bank currently withholding or delaying medical supplies to Gaza and existing medical infrastructure ravaged by war, the possibility of a huge outbreak in the 365 sq km region could be detrimental to the total population of 1.9 million people.
While social distancing is not possible in close quarters, the Gaza health ministry is quarantining people as they see necessary. A two-week long quarantine was enforced by the Hamas government on the Gaza Strip when COVID-19 cases were first reported. Two Palestinian men who came back from a trip to Pakistan tested positive and were quarantined at a hospital close to the Rafah border of Egypt, authorities said on March 21. Police vehicles patrolled the streets, hosed down people and told them not to mingle in group gatherings soon after.
The war-torn territory that only has 70 ICU beds is presently ill-equipped to deal with a potential crisis scenario if the situation escalates. Authorities and health advocates suspect that the actual number of COVID-19 cases may be much more than reported due to the limited testing capacity.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) works closely with refugees by providing them with correct information from global health experts. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) are some of the agencies working on the ground, providing medical guidance to displaced individuals.
The week leading up to June 20 every year is celebrated as Refugee Week. This year, a four-month long research project led by the Centre for Development Studies at University of Bath will be launched sometime this week to commemorate refugees and simultaneously assess the immediate impact of COVID-19. The project aims to assess barriers to communication in refugee camps at the Gaza Strip and was developed with the support of UNRWA, which looks after health and sanitation at the camps.
A number of researchers are on board: Dr Jason Hart and Dr Luisa Enria from the University of Bath, Dr Caitlin Procter from the European University Institute in Florence and Dr Mohammed Al-Rozzi from the University of Edinburgh, among several others, have all voiced support. Global charity organisation Elrha and The Department for International Development, U.K, are together providing financial assistance.
All eight camps in the Gaza strip are part of the study: Shati, Jabalia, Burj al Buraj, Nuseirat, Rafah, Khan Younis, Deir el Balah and Maghazi Cam. Via interviews conducted on Skype and other online platforms, the researchers aim to figure out how communication trickles down to the refugees. Specifically, how information is received, interpreted, and spread, and how misinformation is propagated further.
The idea is to identify how to appropriately communicate and send messages amidst the pandemic. Other researchers in the past had conducted similar studies at these camps when Ebola struck. Eventually, the findings will be shared with the UNRWA, which is in charge of protective activities in Gaza.
Some of the issues the researchers want to understand further are how limited resources affect refugees in Gaza. For instance, 95 percent of the population does not have access to clean water, preventing refugees from regularly washing their hands and practicing good hygiene. Sewage treatment facilities and electricity are absent as well. Face masks are rotated between 15 members of a family. Often, families come together to care for the sick and in turn violate all social distancing rules.
“We need insight into the consequences of a ‘stay at home’ message in overcrowded communities already under threat of on-going conflict related violence and economic strain. In these communities, where clean water supplies are severely limited, public health directives and policies around social/physical distancing, self-isolation and quarantine, as well as a ‘no-touch’ policy and the need for regular hand washing can lead to significant social disruption,” Dr Procter said.
Since 2007, Gaza has been dealing with the blockade, but Israel has been sending medical supplies on humanitarian grounds. This has now stopped, thus worsening the situation. Estimates predict that up to half of the population at the Gaza Strip could contract the infection. It is also estimated that about 20 percent will need hospitalization to recover.
Right now, the strip is equipped with only 2,500 beds, but they could need at least 100,000 beds. Ventilators are in short supply too. The health ministry said that they have 65 ventilators in poor condition and that they need 150 more. UNRWA officials only provide outpatient care and have still not established hospitals in the region.