Gaza City – An outbreak of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip would be catastrophic. Critical shortages of drugs, protective equipment, testing materials and ventilators in Gaza’s hospitals mean people would be quickly overwhelmed by an outbreak.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the healthcare system in Gaza would likely not be able to cope with more than 100 to 150 serious cases at any one time.
So far, only 13 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Gaza, and all either remain in isolation or have recovered. But authorities and residents in Gaza are not taking any chances; even though the virus is not believed to be spreading in the community yet, much of the population is acting as if it is already a threat.
“Prevention is better than cure, and I try to be careful while I interact with customers,” says Mohammed al-Masri, a 23-year-old fruit vendor wearing a mask and gloves at his stall in Gaza City.
“Strawberries are seasonal, and if I don’t sell them these days, I will lose my income, especially since fewer people are keen to purchase fruit nowadays during the closure.”
Protective clothing is still relatively rare among street vendors, who usually subsist on low incomes and are not looking to add to their costs by buying masks and gloves. But it is already common in storefronts such as restaurants and bakeries, which are also offering squirts of hand sanitiser to clients.
Street hawkers hauling carts selling sanitising products were already a common sight in Gaza, but now they are doing a roaring trade as people stock up on chemicals such as chlorine. Groups of volunteers can sometimes be seen spraying disinfectant in the streets.
Although the authorities have not imposed a lockdown of the kind seen in many countries, including over the fence in Israel, they have closed places where people gather in large numbers, including mosques, markets and schools.
As everywhere, many Palestinians have to learn to go about their everyday business online.
Nidaa Abu Sabha, 30, is a teacher who lives in Abassan in Khan Younis. She is teaching her students using her phone, sending recorded lessons to her pupils via WhatsApp.
“My husband is the backbone of my success,” she says. “He takes care of our children while I am working, and he helps me with setting up the phone, so the image is good while I’m teaching online.”
While many are finding social distancing tough, some are working to make it easier for others, such as Fayez Abu Muhareb, 25. Together with four friends, he dresses as a clown to entertain the kids of Khan Younis refugee camp.
“We roam the neighbourhood in clown costumes and try to spread hope and smiles. We want to bring this effort to reach the whole Gaza Strip,” he says.