Under siege; Gaza’s healthcare system faces collapse as poverty hits 1 million

The Gaza Strip is on the brink of catastrophe, according to health experts, as Israel continues to block the supply of medical and humanitarian aid to the enclave amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The health ministry has warned of “disastrous” implications for Gazans, as they foresee the collapse of their entire medical system due to the Israeli siege blocking vital PPE, ventilators and medicine.

As of 23 November, 14,768 people had contracted COVID-19 in Gaza, and 65 deaths with no sign of slowing down in one the most populated areas on Earth.

Dr Fathi Abuwarda, adviser to the minister of health, told Al Jazeera that the recent jump in numbers could soon become uncontrollable, with hundreds of people contracting the highly infectious virus each day with no adequate treatment or containment options available.

“We have entered the catastrophe stage and if we continue like this, the healthcare system will collapse,” Abuwarda told Al Jazeera. “The best solution is a full lockdown for 14 days, which will allow medical teams to control and combat the virus, with only shops that provide food supplies kept open.”

Abuwarda said the health ministry had prepared Gaza’s European Hospital to treat COVID-19 patients, but the hospital’s capacity was insufficient, with 300 of its 360 beds already occupied.

“In the Gaza Strip, there are about 500 [hospital] beds scattered across the coastal enclave…. But considering some 5,000 Palestinians live in each square kilometre in Gaza, these hospitals can’t accommodate all cases,” he said.

Gaza has been under a strict land, air and sea siege for more than 13 years by Israel and Egypt, cutting it off from the rest of the world. 

In a report released by the United Nations on 25 November, the Israeli-led blockade has also forced more than 1 million Gazans under the poverty line and cost the Palestinian enclave more than $16 billion, in just over ten years. 

The report, issued by the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to the General Assembly covered the years between 2007 and 2018, and called for an immediate end to the continuing embargo that has caused a near-collapse of economic activities in Gaza and caused a poverty rate of 56 percent.

“The situation is going to get worse if the blockade continues,” said Mahmoud Elkhafif, coordinator of the Assistance to the Palestinian People of UNCTAD.

“This unfair blockade in which two million Palestinians are kept inside Gaza should be lifted immediately. They should be allowed to move freely, do business, trade with the outside world and reconnect with their families outside of the Strip,” Elkhafif added.

Since June 2007 when Hamas were elected leaders of Gaza, they have endured three Israeli military operations in 2007, 2012 and 2014 that severely damaged civilian infrastructure and caused heavy casualties. 

The population also has very limited access to safe water, with 97 percent of water being unsafe to consume, and lack regular electricity supply or even a proper sewage system means basic human rights are denied on a daily basis.

The report also called for the restoration of the basic human rights of people in Gaza, their right to free movement, healthcare, study and work, and recommended that the state of Palestine be enabled to develop offshore natural gasfields discovered in the 1990s in the Palestinian territorial waters off the Gaza coast.