Gaza under lockdown after first local cases of virus

By Adam Rasgon and Iyad Abuheweila

Just as a graduation for 400 students was breaking up Monday night in the blockaded Gaza Strip, a university official rushed to the stage of the brightly lit soccer stadium and took the microphone to address the crowd of Palestinian families, few wearing masks.

The authorities had just reported four new cases of COVID-19 in the territory, a place that had yet to report a single case of community spread. Every known patient had contracted the virus while traveling elsewhere — but these four had not.

“We ask you not to spend additional time here,” pleaded the official, Said al-Namrouti, urging people who gathered for the Islamic University’s education college graduation to go home immediately. “There’s an exceptional situation outside the stadium related to the coronavirus.”

The discovery of the first four cases of community transmission of the virus deep inside Gaza set off an epidemiological investigation into the outbreak’s source, and prompted Hamas, the militant group that governs the territory, to impose a 48-hour curfew, a first step in the effort to control the outbreak.

But it has also raised fears that the pandemic could spread quickly in the densely populated enclave, exacerbating the already dire economic situation confronting its nearly 2 million residents. On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported two new cases of local transmission, which it said were not linked to the first four.

Experts warned that Gaza’s health sector, already devastated by years of war and conflict, lacked the resources to deal with a widespread outbreak.

Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the World Health Organization’s mission, said Gaza’s medical institutions have only about 100 adult ventilators, most of which were already in use, and noted that authorities were in need of more test kits.

“For years, the situation has been going from bad to worse,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City. “If we need to shut down for several weeks, I’m worried we could be heading for a disaster.”

Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza have contributed to the devastation of its economy, with poverty widespread and unemployment around 45%. Israel says the restrictions are intended to prevent Hamas and other militant groups from gaining access to weapons or the means to build them.

On Tuesday, the effects of the new curfew were visible: Mosques, restaurants, cafes, wedding halls and other places were shut. Beaches were practically empty.

Feras al-Hamami, a vendor who usually earns less than $9 daily, said authorities prevented him from selling long skinny rolls of bread from his portable cart.

“I live on what I make every day,” said Hamami, 21, the sole provider for his wife and himself. “If I don’t work, I don’t have money for food.”

Sobhi al-Khazendar, a legal adviser at a gas company in Gaza City, said the virus worried him even more than violent conflicts between Israel and militant groups in the territory.

“When there’s a war, I usually know where it’s safe to go,” said Khazendar, 27. “The virus is different. It can be anywhere and everywhere. I have no idea how I can avoid it.”

While security forces limited movement throughout the territory by setting up checkpoints, they permitted residents outside the Maghazi refugee camp, where the first four infected people live, to leave their homes only for “absolutely necessary matters” like purchasing medication and food, said Salama Maroof, the head of the Hamas-run government media office.

The four infected people are members of the same family, Maroof said.

The restrictions on movement, however, were not universally observed. In Shejaiya, a neighborhood in the eastern part of Gaza City, hundreds marched through the streets in a funeral procession for four Islamic Jihad fighters who died in an explosion Monday. On side streets, encouraged by Gaza’s frequent power outages, people relaxed near their homes and went for short walks.

Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Hamas-operated Health Ministry, said at a news conference that authorities had tested the four people from the Maghazi camp after learning they had been in contact with a relative who tested positive at a hospital in East Jerusalem.

He didn’t offer an explanation as to how the virus entered the territory, but said contact tracing continued. Until Monday, authorities had found infections only at quarantine facilities, where all returning travelers were required to isolate for three weeks and pass two tests before being permitted to leave.

The discovery of the local cases Monday came as tensions between Israel and Hamas have sharply risen. Palestinians in Gaza have launched flaming and explosive-laden balloons as well as a number of rockets into Israeli territory.

Israel has responded by blocking the entry of all goods into Gaza except for “essential and humanitarian equipment.” The new restrictions apply to fuel, worsening power outages.

Abusada, the political scientist, said he thought the sudden emergence of the pandemic in central Gaza would at least postpone a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas.

“The focus right now is on containing the virus,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean an escalation won’t take place later.”

Rockenschaub, of the World Health Organization, said that it was possible to contain the virus in Gaza, but it would require intensive contact tracing. “This is far from being over, but I think there’s still a chance to avoid a wide-scale outbreak,” he said.

Khazendar said he found out about cases at the Maghazi camp while he was enjoying a coffee with friends at a coffee shop on the beach.

“Up until yesterday, we felt like we were living in another world, without the virus. We were acting like it didn’t exist,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been so complacent, but all I can hope for now is that God protects us.”

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