Charity raises alarm as West Bank, Gaza ‘overwhelmed’ by second COVID-19 wave

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Hospitals in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza are being overwhelmed by a second wave of COVID-19, with hospitals full and the country unable to secure vaccines to protect its population, the medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has told Al Arabiya English.

As countries around the world race to vaccinate their populations, just two per cent of the population in Palestine has been inoculated against the virus, with the charity fearing fragile health systems in the West Bank and Gaza will cripple under the strain of new cases.

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Natalie Thurtle, MSF medical coordinator for Palestine, told Al Arabiya English that Palestine urgently needs outside help as it faces “a very ugly 2021.”

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health’s genomic analysis, approximately 75 percent of cases sampled in the West Bank are now variant B117, which originated in the UK. This variant is thought to be around 50 percent more transmissible than previous strains.

Recent studies have suggested that the variant is 40-60 percent more likely to result in severe COVID-19, necessitating supplemental oxygen and ventilator support, and an increased risk of death.

“Countries such as Israel have had a very successful vaccination campaign and been able to procure a large number of vaccine doses – including, from my understanding, a surplus, whereas in Palestine it has been much more complicated for the authorities to procure vaccines,” said Hurtle.

A Palestinian woman reacts while waiting for her husband (background) at the COVID-19 intensive care unit of al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on April 7, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
A Palestinian woman reacts while waiting for her husband (background) at the COVID-19 intensive care unit of al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on April 7, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

With Palestine – and especially areas such as Gaza – facing additional social determinants of disease, Hurtle said the country is “not at all equipped to cope with "disease surges of any kind.”

“This is particularly true in Gaza, where there is the added impact of occupation and economic blockades which lead to restrictions of entry for medical supply,” she added.

More than 20,000 patients are currently being treated for COVID-19 in the West Bank, adding further pressure to an already fragile healthcare system and leaving medical staff struggling to provide adequate care to hospitalized patients.

Nablus, a city in the northern part of West Bank, have already reached the peak of the second wave, said Hurtle.

There hospitals are full, with every bed occupied by an ICU-patient. Those with severe symptoms but do not require oxygen are being turned away due to a lack of beds.

“We expect to see this now in Gaza - but worse, given its higher-population density, less public health facilities and fewer public health restrictions. Gaza is heading for a very difficult time.

“They have already been knocked by the first wave and the second wave – which expect to be dominated by cases of the more severe UK variant – is likely to be much worse.”

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‘Don’t hoard supplies’

Hurtle said MSF are appealing for countries to share vaccines and not “hoard supplies.”

“We anticipate in Palestine, with the very slow vaccine rollout that there will be yet another surge later this year. We are publicly asking now for support from other countries and other UN member states to commit to supporting Palestine.”

“We are now seeing nearly 2,000 cases a day in Gaza alone – that has gone up extraordinarily quickly – they have doubled the cases this week compared to last week.”

Hospitals are also running out of basic cleaning supplies, she said.

“Really, we are very worried about it," said Hurtle. "We reject richer countries hoarding vaccines; countries like Palestine are heading to a very bleak 20021 without meaningful vaccine coverage.

“For example, Israel next door has a strong vaccine campaign– it would make sense for them to support vaccine rollout to Palestine as their close neighbor.

“COVID-19 doesn’t respect borders and countries need to remember that.”

A Palestinian health worker shows a box of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in Gaza City on March 22, 2021. (AFP)
A Palestinian health worker shows a box of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in Gaza City on March 22, 2021. (AFP)

Marius Sanciuc, an MSF ICU nurse providing training and medical support to staff at a hospital in West Bank, said: “We are doing our best to save them all.”

“The biggest challenge is that hospital staff have limited experience in caring for very sick patients or patients with COVID-19.”

Simple procedures such as proning—in which a patient is turned onto their stomach to improve breathing—have been a challenge to implement.

“Try to imagine turning a patient around, from their back onto their abdomen, when they have many IV lines and tubes leading into their chest cavity and abdomen.”

MSF has been supporting the hospital by training staff, treating patients, raising awareness of COVID-19 among local communities to reduce the spread of the virus, and providing counseling to patients and their families.

Read more:

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