Virus surge in crowded Gaza threatens to overwhelm hospitals

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GAZA CITY, April 26 (AP): More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, some of the worst fears are coming true in the crowded Gaza Strip: A sudden surge in infections and deaths is threatening to overwhelm hospitals weakened by years of conflict and border closures.

Gaza’s main treatment center for Covid-19 patients warns that oxygen supplies are dwindling fast. In another hospital, coronavirus patients are packed three to a room.

For months, Gaza’s Hamas rulers seemed to have a handle on containing the pandemic. But their decision to lift most movement restrictions in February — coupled with the spread of a more aggressive virus variant and lack of vaccines — has led to a fierce second surge.

At the same time, many of Gaza’s more than 2 million people ignore safety precautions, especially during the current fasting month of Ramadan. In the daytime, markets teem with shoppers buying goods for iftar, the meal breaking the fast after sundown. Few wear masks properly, if at all.

“Corona is not a game,” said Yasmin Ali, 32, whose 64-year-old mother died of the virus last week. “It will take the lives of many people if they don’t protect themselves in the first place.”

From the start, the course of the pandemic in Gaza, one of the world’s most crowded territories, was largely shaped by politics. A border closure — enforced by Israel and Egypt to varying degrees since the Islamic militant Hamas group seized control of Gaza in 2007 — helped slow the spread initially. In the early months, Hamas quarantined small groups of travelers coming from Egypt, and the first cases of community spread were only reported in August.

A first outbreak came in the fall. Hamas tried to contain it by closing schools, mosques and markets, and by imposing a nighttime curfew. By February, infections had dropped sharply.

At that point, Hamas lifted curfews. Students were back in schools, wedding halls reopened and street markets were back. Travelers from Egypt were no longer placed in quarantine or even tested. Instead they were waved through after a temperature check, on the assumption that they had already been tested in Egypt.

The decision to reopen was in part driven by economic concerns. The closures had further battered Gaza’s long-suffering economy, where unemployment stands at roughly 50% and among young people at 70%.

Hamas may also have been concerned about prolonging unpopular measures ahead of Palestinian parliament elections. In the May 22 vote, Hamas is competing against the Fatah movement of West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. There’s no reliable polling, but Hamas appears vulnerable to a Fatah challenge in Gaza, even as it is expected to do well in the West Bank.

The start of Ramadan in mid-April, with its crowded markets and late-night mosque prayers, further fueled infections, as did the emergence of more aggressive virus variants.

Last week, the daily death toll rose above 20 on most days, compared to a one-time daily high of 15 in the first surge. Daily infections of 1,000 to 1,500 are the new norm. The total number of infections is close to 100,000, with 848 deaths.

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