MARY KELLY. Gaza must be given the right to fight the Covid-19 pandemic

Australia must call on Israel to lift the crippling blockade so that Gazans can be given a chance to fight Covid-19. 

Life for all of us at the moment is very challenging. We are living in unprecedented times. However, in terms of fighting the Covid-19 virus, we are more fortunate than most. We have an excellent medical system, plenty of clean water and, for many of us, a reasonably spacious environment in which to endure the isolation. I know too that it is all so easy to turn our focus inwards in times of crisis. However, when I think about the conditions in Gaza especially, I am absolutely terrified for the Palestinians trapped there. The tragic news of the last few days is that the virus has reached blockaded Gaza.

The almost two million people surviving in the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip are being left to face the Covid-19 virus with hopelessly inadequate medical facilities and extreme overcrowding – conditions in which the virus will spread rapidly and devastatingly unless action is taken now.

The usual medical and public policy advice that we have received to deal with the virus will be impossible to follow under the Israeli blockade. 97% of all Gaza’s water is not fit to drink and the hospitals do not have enough clean water even for medical staff to wash safely. Basic preventative measures such as washing hands regularly and keeping social distancing are again impossible to carry out.

After 13 years of embargo, war and bombings by Israel, Gaza’s hospitals are already unable to deal with “normal” medical situations. In March last year, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territories reported on Gaza’s “chronic power outages, gaps in critical services, including mental health and psycho-social support, and shortages of essential medicines, supplies and medical personnel.”

In similar vein, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, has reported that, even before the Covid-19 virus, Gaza’s hospitals were barely functioning. There are only 2,800 hospital beds and 60 respirators in Gaza. They were dealing with the fall-out from thousands of injuries, which have resulted from murderous Israeli sniper-fire on demonstrators in the “great march of return” protests, on the Gaza side of the security fence.

The situation is little better in the West Bank where, as a result of Israel’s brutal military occupation, medical facilities are totally inadequate with serious shortages of basic medical equipment, trained personnel and essential medical supplies. Palestinian workers are forced to line up in crowded metal cages at Israeli checkpoints, giving them no choice but to endure extremely unsafe conditions every day. Inside Israeli prisons, Palestinian prisoners are now being denied cleaning products and medical visits, a move slammed by human rights groups.

The UN Security Council has consistently identified that Israel is clearly an occupying power in Gaza and therefore has responsibility for the well-being its citizens. Recent reports indicate that Israel has allowed only 500 Covid-19 tests into Gaza. This is grossly inadequate.

The looming human catastrophe is clear. When medically well-supplied countries like Italy, Spain and the USA have struggled to contain the virus, there is no way the hospitals in Gaza will be able to cope.

In the past, Australia has usually abstained when there is a vote in the UN to end Israel’s military occupation. This catastrophic world-wide Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented and it is now critical for the Australian Government to use its close relationships with Israel to impose effective political action, calling for Israel to end its blockade and allow medical resources and food into the Strip and give Palestinians the chance to fight this pandemic and save countless lives.

Mary Kelly is a retired high school teacher, having spent 40 years living in various countries as the wife of a Foreign Affairs officer. Recently, she has lived in the West Bank as a human rights volunteer.

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