WHO paints grim picture of Palestinian health services

Conflict and Covid-19 stretch healthcare systems in Gaza and West Bank

Palestinian doctor Marwan Abu Sada works in Shifa hospital in Gaza City May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
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Israeli strikes damaged 24 healthcare centres in the Gaza Strip before a truce took effect on Friday.

The impact is severely hindering the treatment of hundreds wounded during 11 days of attacks, the UN’s health agency said.

They have only worsened the already dire healthcare situation there, said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, the World Health Organisation’s chief for the East Mediterranean region.

He said the situation was made worse by Israel’s closure of entry and exit points into the Gaza Strip.

“Healthcare facilities and staff should be a red line for any conflict; they should not be targets, nor should they be impacted by so-called ‘collateral damage’,” Dr Al Mandhari said at a WHO virtual conference held on Thursday before the ceasefire began.

The WHO head of office for West Bank and Gaza, Dr Richard Peeperkorn, Regional Emergency Director Dr Richard Brennan and Director of Communicable Diseases Dr Yvan Hutin also took part in the conference on the health impact of the conflict on people living in the Palestinian territory.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said 243 Gazans, including 66 children, were killed before the truce halted Israel’s offensive on the territory, and about 1,910 Gazans were wounded.

Anti-Israel protests in the West Bank during the same period killed 27, including four children, and injured 6,778, including 701 from live ammunition, the WHO said.

The escalating violence has also caused significant damage to much of the civil and healthcare infrastructure of the West Bank and Gaza, Dr Al Mandhari said.

As part of a $7 million response plan, WHO is working with the Palestinian Health Ministry to offer emergency treatment to the wounded in Gaza. This includes 10 medical tents encircling the enclave.

Healthcare operations in both areas are severely overwhelmed because they face critical shortages in essential medical supplies, he said.

Medics in both areas must now treat the wounded in addition to a growing number of Covid-19 patients as both areas emerge from a more aggressive third wave of the coronavirus, he said.

An increase in waterborne disease caused by damage to sewage systems has worsened the problem.

“WHO is extremely concerned about the loss of so many lives,” he said.

Dr Peeperkorn said that while exceptions have been made enabling Palestinians to leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, and for Egyptian aid convoys to enter, there was still a “crying need” for essential humanitarian supplies.

Israeli air strikes have also damaged many of the main roads in Gaza, making it difficult for ambulances to reach the wounded.

Gaza’s largest Covid-19 testing laboratory, the Rimal Clinic, was almost destroyed in an air strike. It severely injured a doctor who was on duty at the time, Dr Peeperkorn said.

Only one other testing centre is left in Gaza but it operates on a much smaller scale than Rimal, with a capacity of 250 PCR tests a day.

“Covid-19 is still a real issue and I want to stress the point that both the West Bank and Gaza were just coming out of the third wave,” he said. “The damage and displacement of people will not help the Covid-19 situation.”

About 75,000 people were displaced in Gaza over the course of the latest conflict, of whom 47,000 sought shelter in 58 schools run by the UN Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA.