Gazans fear widespread coronavirus outbreak over sub-par quarantine centres

Those held after returning from abroad complain of poor conditions as the enclave confirms two cases

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Gazan authorities imposed a mandatory quarantine last week for every returning resident of the besieged enclave as part of efforts to combat a potential outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic.

The strip confirmed two cases on Sunday morning, two people who returned recently from Pakistan, and residents say conditions at quarantine centres heighten the risk of an wider outbreak that could be catastrophic for the two million people who live in a territory battered by three wars in the past 12 years and an ongoing Israeli economic blockade.

Abu Jihad, 54, lives in Rafah city in southern Gaza. He travelled to Egypt for medical treatment and was detained when he returned home last week.

"The situation here is so bad," he told The National from quarantine.

Abu Jihad arrived to the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, where he was transferred with 65 others to Ghassan Kanafani School in Rafah City in a protective measure the authorities in Gaza initiated to avoid an outbreak of the virus.

“I am not against the quarantine, but I am not accepting the situation here because there are about 10 people in the same classroom, which could [spread] the virus quickly,” he said.

In 18 quarantine centres, 1,189 Gazans who have returned to the strip have been held in isolation, the Gazan Health Ministry said.

Abu Jihad complained that “no one came to examine us, no one came to take our temperature, there are sick people here with us, who are in need to a suitable place for them”.

The health ministry confirmed it had examined about 82 people for Covid-19.

"At the beginning we started with home quarantine, but a lot of people didn't comply with this measures, so we enforced mandatory quarantine on travellers," Dr Majdi Dahir, director of preventive medicine for Gaza's health ministry, told The National.

“It is true that the situation in the beginning was not good ... we faced difficulties in the beginning. But after four days people started to understand, and we did our best to make the situation better.”

People in Gaza say that the Hamas-ruled enclave had remained clear of any cases because of Israel’s siege, which began in 2007 when Hamas overran the strip, seizing control from Fatah.

By cutting the territory off from the rest of the world, it has been left with a battered economy, one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and crumbling infrastructure.

“We are controlling the situation right now, but in case of a virus outbreak in Gaza we will be in front of a serious situation, because we face problems with medical equipment, medicine and medical staff,” Dr Dahir said.

The blockade and wars with Israel have severely reduced the capacity of Gaza’s healthcare system.


"This is not a quarantine – this is considered as a shelter, like the shelters that were made during the last wars on Gaza," Mohammed Oda, 47, told The National.

Mr Oda was in Egypt and arrived to Rafah border on Monday before being transferred to Ghassan Kanafani School for quarantine.

“They provide food, blankets and bed, but there is no health care for people here,” he said.

Inside each classroom there are eight to 10 beds around one metre apart, half the distance that is recommended to keep others from contracting the virus. Bathrooms are far from the classrooms.

“I think the people who think to turn the schools into quarantine centres don’t understand the seriousness of the situation, or they want to ask for funds,” Mr Oda said.

Samah Ahmed, 40, was taken to Rodail Falter school in Dare Ballah City in the centre of the Gaza Strip. She told The National "since I arrived here I didn't get any health care, the place is not clean".

Ms Ahmed arrived to the Rafah border last Tuesday. She now shares a classroom with eight other women.

“I decided to not eat anything so I will not be forced to enter the bathroom, because the bathroom is shared by all the people who are in the school and it is not clean,” she said.

Mohammed Shrafi, 42, was transferred last Sunday with 50 other returnees to Marmara School in Rafah.

He said “the situation now is better than before, many changes have happened, they built new bathrooms and supplied us with internet services and there is a medical crew in the school”.

But a wave of condemnation led by social media activists against the Gazan authorities’ poor preparation for the quarantine centres is what appeared to push its leaders to make changes to create a safer environment for those in quarantine.

“I understand that Gaza is not like other countries that can provide great facilities for people,” Mr Shrafi said. “They do what they can.”