Coronavirus could decimate Gaza’s population

Isolation is impossible with large families confined to a few rooms, living in close quarters with neighbours

A health worker checks the temperature of a child at a UN school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza city on Wednesday, in preparation for the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Mahmoud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

Gaza’s population could be decimated if coronavirus takes hold among the two million Palestinians who live in the narrow coastal strip. They are used to being locked in, unlike the inhabitants of many countries round the globe.

Gazans have been besieged and blockaded by Israel to varying degrees since Hamas won the 1996 Palestinian legislative election and seized control in 2007.

After withdrawing its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, Israel retained control of the strip's land borders, sea access and air space. Palestinians who enter and leave are monitored by Israel and all goods going to Gaza arrive though the Israeli transit station at Karem Shalom. Gaza is totally dependent on Israel.

The Rafah entry to Egypt and the Erez gateway to Israel, which cater for travellers, are currently closed while the goods crossing, Gaza's sole life-line, remains open for merchandise and essential supplies.


According to Gaza’s health ministry, no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the strip although 63 people are quarantined at a field hospital near the southern city of Rafah and 2,667 are confined to their homes.

Most have arrived from Egypt, where the virus has spread, or have been exposed to someone who has. The World Health Organisation sent 200 test kits, via Israel, to Gaza, but they will hardly suffice if the virus gains ground.

Isolation is impossible for the majority of Gazans. Families are large, often confined to a few rooms, and live in close quarters with neighbours. In Gaza city, with 750,000 inhabitants, jerry-built, three- and four-storey apartment blocks stand side by side on narrow streets and alleyways. Children abound.

Schools and universities have closed, mosques attract few devout souls. Some 7,000 Gazans with permits to work in Israel – where the rate of infection is rising – cannot cross, depriving their families of pay but providing a measure of protection from the virus.


Gaza is highly vulnerable to infection. Israeli attacks in 2008-09 and 2014 devastated the strip’s infrastructure, homes, schools, factories and farms. Subsequently, Israel and Egypt destroyed more than 1,200 smuggling tunnels dug under the border with Egypt, ending the free flow of fuel, commercial goods, medicine, cement, raw materials for manufacturing, livestock, vehicles, and people as well as weapons.

The tunnels provided work as well as supplies. For a few years, Gaza was almost liveable.

Some 80 per cent of Gazans depend on external aid to survive; 70 per cent of the population consists of refugees from land conquered by Israel in 1948. More than half the workforce is unemployed. Water is saline and polluted. Raw sewage flows into the Mediterranean Sea off the Gaza coast. Power cuts are frequent.

The underfunded health system has been overstretched by dying and wounded Palestinians who protested the occupation in virus-suspended weekly gatherings at the fence along the border with Israel. Hospitals and clinics lack test kits, drugs, ventilators and protective clothing for doctors and nurses.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), which provides food, education, healthcare and welfare services for refugees faces its worst ever financial crisis. Unrwa's Gaza director of operations, Mattias Schmale, said the agency had a $1 billion (€930 million) deficit, which could compel it to reduce basic services.

Unrwa has struggled since the Trump administration cut the US donation from $360 million to $60 million before cancelling its annual contribution. Donor countries have pledged $400 million for this year's $1.2 billion budget but are focusing on battling the virus at home rather than in Gaza.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times