Gaza is an open-air prison. As covid-19 spreads, it’s time to lift the siege.

Palestinian artist Samah Saed decorates a face mask in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza on April 2.
Palestinian artist Samah Saed decorates a face mask in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza on April 2. (Adel Hana/AP)
By Tarek Loubani 
April 15, 2020 at 1:00 p.m. GMT+3

This piece has been updated.

Tarek Loubani is an emergency room doctor, associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and founder of the Glia Project, which provides medical supplies to impoverished locations.

As health-care professionals around the world struggle to cope with the covid-19 pandemic, doctors and nurses in Gaza face challenges more daunting than most due to the Israeli-led siege imposed on the overcrowded coastal territory more than a decade ago. The recent confirmation of the first covid-19 cases in Gaza should prompt immediate action to lift the siege and ensure medical workers have the supplies and equipment they desperately need.

Since I left Gaza a few weeks ago, there have been 13 confirmed cases of covid-19 in Gaza, nearly 300 confirmed cases and two deaths in the West Bank. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and the poor conditions in its refugee camps and cities mean that the novel coronavirus could spread quickly and devastatingly.

Gaza’s health-care system has long been past its breaking point. Last month, the head of the World Health Organization’s sub-office in Gaza warned that the territory’s health infrastructure would not be able to deal with hundreds or thousands of covid-19 cases, let alone tens or hundreds of thousands of cases.

Doctors and nurses in Gaza have always done heroic work under terrible conditions. But how do you prepare for a pandemic in a place like Gaza? In London, Ontario, where I work, we lack N95 masks. In Gaza, they lack masks, gloves and drugs. There is not enough specialized staff in intensive care units, and Gaza is running dangerously low on covid-19 tests.

According to the WHO, there are only 87 ventilators in Gaza for a population of 2 million. I’ve seen many of these units; many are not fit for purpose in the best of times and most are already being used. In emergency conditions, the number of intensive unit beds can be stretched only from the existing 40 to a mere 100. A major limiting factor is that, because of a lack of electricity, hospitals must rely on generators, which means that lifesaving machines cannot function reliably.

Add to that a lack of clean water for people to wash their hands with, a paralyzed sewage-treatment system due to the lack of electricity, widespread poverty and the inability of many Palestinians to socially distance in densely packed refugee camps or to leave because of the siege, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The United Nations has found the items most urgently needed in Gaza right now are “personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and other essential supplies for infection prevention and control; equipment, disposables and drugs for the treatment of respiratory distress; ventilators, cardio-monitors, emergency carts and portable X-Ray machines; and equipment to conduct COVID-19 tests.” The people of Gaza are resourceful and innovative, with garment factories shifting production to make masks and surgical gowns. However, their ingenuity can do only so much, particularly under siege and occupation.

Why should Americans care about the fate of Palestinians in Gaza? Since taking office, President Trump has closely aligned his administration’s policies with those of the Israeli government, and in 2018, he slashed almost all aid to the Palestinians, including funding to the U.N. agency responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees. Late last month, a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to ensure that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza receive all the aid they need to fight the pandemic. The letter noted the previous funding cuts and that health-care professionals in Gaza face dire conditions, including the unavailability of a third of essential medications.

Gaza is an open-air prison. We need to open the gates if its residents are to survive the coming pandemic. The siege has been condemned as illegal by U.N. experts and human rights groups because it amounts to collective punishment of the entire population.

If Israeli authorities do not act to immediately lift the siege and allow in more urgently-needed medical and other supplies, the virus will ravage not just Gaza, but Israel and other countries in the region as well. After all, viruses do not respect checkpoints or national boundaries. How can you put out a fire when gasoline is pouring on it from one side?

Israel must immediately lift restrictions on supplies and equipment entering Gaza and ensure Palestinian doctors and nurses have the resources they need to ensure the health and safety of their patients. It should also lift travel restrictions so that Palestinians in Gaza who are sick can leave to receive treatment elsewhere. As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the well-being of Gaza’s population. If they cannot ensure that, they should stand aside to allow Palestinian doctors, nurses and other health-care workers to safeguard the health of their people.