The closure of the Gaza Strip is tight enough to make life difficult for residents, but fences and checkpoints don’t prevent viruses from passing through, as became apparent earlier this month. Despite predictions that the closure of Gaza might protect it from exposure to the Swine Flu, the virus was identified in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, and already some 185 people have been diagnosed as infected, 13 of whom have died.
Not only has the closure of Gaza failed to protect it from the virus, but the restrictions on the passage of equipment and fuel are making it difficult to contain the virus’s spread.
During the military operation last winter, 15 hospitals and 34 medical institutions were damaged, and their repair has not been possible due to Israel’s refusal to allow building materials into the Gaza Strip. While Israel boasts of permitting increased quantities of humanitarian aid to Gaza, it continues to restrict the entrance of medical supplies, claiming security risks. Thus, Israel is making it difficult to send batteries needed for the UPS systems that protect sensitive hospital equipment during the frequent power outages and is limiting the supply of additional medical supplies, such as X-ray equipment.
The Swine Flu, however, known for its tendency to breach borders, is not treated like other illnesses, and Israel has allowed 6,000 vaccinations purchased by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah into Gaza. The vaccinations are destined for Gaza residents who participated in the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) and for the medical professionals treating patients diagnosed with the virus. It is estimated that more than 400,000 vaccinations are needed for people in high risk groups.
Allowing vaccinations through to Gaza residents is surely a nice public relations photo opportunity, but preventing the outbreak of an epidemic requires appropriate sanitary conditions and infrastructure, too. Frequent and extended blackouts (8 hours a day, 4 days a week), due to Israel’s refusal to allow the transfer of the required amount of industrial diesel to the Gaza power station, interfere with the proper functioning of local hospitals. Hospitals rely on back-up generators during the power outages, but limitations on their power production interferes with the heating and ventilation systems that are vital for maintaining proper air-pressure. Likewise, the ongoing shortage of gas limits the ability to run hospital washing machines needed for basic hygiene. This past week, only 34% of the gas needed by Gaza residents was supplied (518 tons out of the 1,500 tons needed per week).
Other types of infrastructure systems which are needed to deal with infectious diseases are the sewerage and water purification systems, which also rely on fuel and supplies limited by Israel. A roof over the heads of the thousands of residents uprooted from their homes and the hundreds still living in tents since their homes were destroyed in the war is another basic requirement.
Some people resort to prayer to protect them from the Swine Flu. We would make do, for starters, with policies that allow the ongoing transfer of equipment required for sanitation and the proper functioning of the health system – out of respect for the rights of the 1.5 million people who live in the Gaza Strip.