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'Catastrophe': Fears over outbreak of coronavirus in Gaza

Aljazeera 2020-03-26 12:26:44

According to health officials in the besieged Gaza Strip, at least seven people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the enclave to nine.

In a statement released on Wednesday night, Gaza's Health Ministry said the new patients had been in contact with the first two who tested positive earlier this week.

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The new cases were security guards who were guarding the quarantine facility in southern Gaza, the ministry added. 

The security guards "have not left and remain in the quarantine centre, and have not mixed with anyone outside the facility … near the Rafah border crossing", local media reported the ministry as saying.

Gaza's nearly two million residents have been urged to take precautionary measures and to practise social distancing by staying home in a bid to halt the spread of the virus. 

Shadi al-Tabatibi is the grandson of Mohammed al-Tabatibi - the 79-year-old man who was one of the first two to test positive for the virus earlier this week.

Shadi al-Tabatibi told Al Jazeera he and his family members were shocked to learn that the new patients had contracted the virus from his grandfather. 

"My grandfather suffers from diabetes and blood pressure … and we're worried about the possibility of his health deteriorating," the 26-year-old said.

His grandfather is among dozens of others who are currently in quarantine centres in the southern Gaza Strip, where many have raised concern about the lack of hygiene and medical care available. 

Shadi al-Tabatibi's grandfather has said there is not enough "equipment to deal with the disease" and "there is no appropriate medical care" in the facility, according to his grandson.

"The people here are afraid, the streets are empty … it is like the days of the war in Gaza."

Scarce resources

The potential outbreak of the disease in the densely populated Gaza could be catastrophic, doctors and NGOs have warned.

Earlier this week, authorities shut down restaurants, cafes and reception halls. Friday prayers at mosques have also been suspended until further notice.

Rami al-Abadleh, director of the infections prevention department in Gaza's Health Ministry, said it is likely that new cases of the virus will be detected.

"We took new samples for PCR testing, and we will expand our efforts to test 150 samples a day," al-Abadleh said, referring to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test - the test of choice utilised to diagnose COVID-19.

"We have repeatedly called for medical devices that are needed to cover the huge shortage in the health sector," he said, noting that the Health Ministry's capabilities are "very limited".

Gaza's healthcare system is severely depleted and its war-affected residents are especially vulnerable as they have lived under an Israeli-Egyptian siege for nearly 13 years.

The air, land and sea blockade has restricted the entry of essential resources such as healthcare equipment, medication and building materials, among others.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Gaza's healthcare system would not be able to deal with an outbreak, given that the strip's hospitals are overstretched and under-resourced.

"Our ventilators are hardly sufficient and would only be able to accommodate a maximum of 100 patients across the strip," al-Abadleh said.

"Currently, there are 45 intensive care beds in all of Gaza's public hospitals, and they are often occupied by other patients with heart and lung diseases," al-Abadleh added. "This is why the spread of the virus in Gaza would constitute a real catastrophe."

Additional reporting by Maram Humaid.