Gaza’s Health System is Collapsing. Where’s That Headline?

MOHAMMED OMER

A Palestinian doctor treats a child at an UNRWA-run clinic in al-Nusirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Jan. 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2020, pp. 26-27

Gaza on the Ground

By Mohammed Omer

THE CORONAVIRUS is capturing headlines around the world. One headline you’ll never see is that measles—the once common and sometimes deadly highly contagious childhood infection—is making a comeback in Gaza. The viral disease remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of safe and effective vaccines. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a total of 124 confirmed cases of measles, including two deaths, in the Gaza Strip from Dec. 19, 2019 to Jan. 1, 2020. Of those confirmed cases, 49 required hospitalization; 12 were healthcare workers; and 57 had not been vaccinated.

WHO is working along with Gaza hospitals to deliver vaccines to a population of two million Gazans if they have no proof of vaccination or immunity against measles. The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines are given to children at the age of 12-to-18 months and again a few months later. Those confirmed cases included 57 unvaccinated infants between 6 months to one-year-olds, as well as 29 people older than 30.

Between 2009 and 2018, 97 percent of Gazans had received both doses of the MMR vaccine and only one Gazan caught the measles from 1986 to 2000. Now, the disease is coming back to densely populated Gaza, causing growing concern that it could go viral if vaccines are not provided immediately.

Nasser Al Omran, 13, was one of many students recently lining up for his measles vaccine in Gaza’s schools. Health authorities in the Gaza Strip began MMR vaccination of all health care workers in four public hospitals where measles cases were admitted and treated. An estimated 900 healthcare workers were vaccinated in December 2019.

The rise in confirmed cases of measles exacerbates a rapidly deteriorating public health situation in the Gaza Strip. The Trump administration’s 2018 decision to cut more than $200 million in aid has drastically affected basic health services, especially in Gaza, where healthcare services have dropped by 90 percent, according to a UNICEF report. Gaza’s infrastructure has been badly damaged by repeated Israeli attacks, and the Strip lacks clean water and nutritional food for all its inhabitants.

A new United Nations report states that more than two million Palestinians in the occupied territories are facing a humanitarian crisis. An estimated $348 million is urgently needed to provide life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable.

COLLAPSING HEALTH SYSTEM

The United Nations has recently launched a 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan aiming to assist 1.5 million people, mostly residents of Gaza, who are already in dire straits.

The U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for occupied Palestinian territory, Jamie McGoldrick, said nearly half of Gaza’s population is unemployed. That figure includes seven out of 10 young people under age 30 who have no jobs. Among them, he said, are more than 400,000 university graduates who cannot find jobs.

Lack of jobs is causing frustration among the youth of Gaza. “I’m losing hope in humanity” says 34-year-old Bilal Abulkhier, who hoped to marry the girl he loves, but her parents want a son-in-law who can earn his living. “My engineering degree is worth nothing,” he adds, as he applies for jobs. Like many, he can neither leave Gaza, nor find a job in Gaza.

McGoldrick said the health system is on the verge of collapse. The situation is compounded by a serious brain-drain of doctors who have left for better-paying jobs abroad. He added that more than 60 percent of households are short of even basic foods. “Living in Gaza is like living a perpetual trauma,” noted the French group, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The U.N. appeal is not receiving the much-needed funds to cope with and to prevent more humanitarian crises. McGoldrick said the largest portion of money from the appeal must first go to food, then clean drinking water and sanitation.

McGoldrick said the appeal is both addressing these needs and restoring dignity to peoples’ lives. Unfortunately, however, the response from donors has not been adequate.

HERBICIDE ON THE FARMLANDS

Human rights organizations have urged Israel to immediately halt renewed aerial herbicide spraying along the Gaza Strip perimeter fence, according to the legal rights center Adalah.

In mid-January Israeli crop dusters flew along the fence “and sprayed chemicals purported to be herbicides.” The spraying was “conducted sporadically for about three and half hours.” Israel has long treated Gaza like a concentration camp, and now sprays its borders like a disease containment camp.

The chemicals reached Palestinian farmlands inside the Gaza Strip, mainly east of Gaza, in North Gaza, and in the Deir Al Balah districts.

Adalah has sent a letter to Israeli officials “with an urgent demand to refrain from conducting further aerial spraying of herbicides inside and near the Gaza Strip, due to the severe damage to crops and the health risks to Gaza residents.”

Israel’s practice of conducting aerial herbicide spraying was first documented in 2014. “Herbicidal chemicals have reached distances as far as 1,200 meters into the Strip in previously documented incidents of spraying,” according to Adalah.

“It is estimated that a total area of 7,620 dunams of arable land in the Gaza Strip has been affected by aerial spraying since 2014, when the first incident of this type was reported,” Adalah noted. “Palestinian farmers have sustained widespread damage to their crops and incurred immense financial losses as a result, which drove some farmers to abandon cultivating fields near the perimeter fence due to the associated risks.”

It is difficult to assess how serious the damage could be to human health, aquifers, and livelihoods of people and animals in the area. Neither is there any authority on the ground to prevent farmers from collecting affected resources.

ISRAEL EASES BLOCKADE

In recent months Israel began quietly allowing thousands of Palestinians to enter from the Gaza Strip to conduct business and work menial jobs. Some 5,000 so-called merchant permits were awarded to Palestinians (who can afford to pay for the paperwork) to work as laborers in construction, agriculture and manufacturing, in return for ending Palestinian border demonstrations. Before the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, more than 26,000 Palestinians crossed into Israel from Gaza for work.

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