Every year, World Health Day is celebrated on 7 April. On this day in 1948, the First World Health Assembly was held, during which the World Health Organization (WHO) was formally founded. Since its inception, this annual celebration has aimed at raising awareness of a specific health issue or theme. For 2021, the theme is “Building a fairer, healthier world.”
Over the past year, the entire world has been engulfed by a global pandemic that has affected each and every community. But in the virus’s spread and in the world’s response, stark inequities have come to light. Indeed, one of the many outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to make ever more evident that ours is an unequal world, not least in terms of health.
Human rights and health are inextricably linked to the global response to COVID-19. According to the Constitution of the WHO, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” Yet, the full enjoyment of this right is inextricably linked to the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.
For Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), health inequities are an everyday reality that is rooted in Israel’s long held apartheid regime and 54 years of military occupation. For the two million Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip in particular, the right to health has been jeopardized by the wider, protracted crisis that faced the Palestinian health system long before the pandemic.
For over thirteen years, Israel has maintained a comprehensive land, sea, and air blockade and closure over the Gaza Strip. The closure, rooted in stringent restrictions on the movement of goods and people, along with Israel’s regular military operations that target medical facilities, has led to a state of de-development within Gaza’s healthcare system. For years, the system has suffered from the regular shortage of medicines, medical equipment and trained personnel. As of February 2021, the Palestinian Ministry of Health (MoH) reported that 45% of medicines listed on the MoH essential drugs list and 33% of medical disposables were at ‘zero stock’ levels across the Gaza Strip.
Accordingly, the lack of adequate and accessible healthcare significantly affects life expectancy and the right to health of Gaza’s two million Palestinian residents. As a result, in order to access quality and sometimes life-saving health services unavailable in Gaza, Palestinian patients are forced to rely on Israel’s capricious and discriminatory permit regime. The documentation collected by Al Mezan since 2015 shows that the Israeli authorities at Erez crossing arbitrarily arrested 14 Palestinian patients (plus 16 companions) who were seeking to leave the Gaza Strip for urgent medical appointments and in possession of the requisite Israeli-issued crossing permits.
Another health inequality and discriminatory policy borne from the colonial and discriminatory aspects of Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime is starkly visible in access to COVID-19 vaccines. Israel not only refuses to provide vaccines for the entire Palestinian population living under its control and to whom it has an obligation as an occupying power, but in the case of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s control over the movement of goods further hindered access to vaccines procured by the Palestinians themselves. In early February, while Israel was leading one of the world’s most successful mass vaccination programs on its own population, its authorities purposively blocked the shipment of 2,000 vaccine doses to the Gaza Strip.
Considering that there are approximately 1.2 million Palestinians over the age of eighteen in the Gaza Strip, around 2.4 vaccine doses are needed. However, so far, the MoH has only received 81,600 doses, delivered through Rafah crossing. As of 4 April 2021, 24,132 persons have been vaccinated, i. e. around 1% of the total population of the Gaza Strip, while more than 60% of Israel's 9.2 million population have received both vaccine doses.
As Mr. Samir Zaqout, Al Mezan’s Deputy Director, noted, “patients are among the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in the Gaza Strip. It is evident that they are subjected to discrimination and continue to suffer due to chronic lack of medical drugs and equipment, as well as Israel’s restriction measures. They are increasingly subjected to arbitrary detention and interrogation by the Israeli authorities. Now more than ever, the international community must intervene to protect the right of Palestinian patients to healthcare, especially as Israel continues to block the delivery of the vaccine to Gaza.”
On World Health Day, Al Mezan highlights the persistent health inequities affecting Palestinians in Gaza, which are largely attributable to Israel’s discriminatory and exclusionary policies that inter alia effect a situation of chronic lack of essential medical supplies.
Accordingly, Al Mezan reiterates its calls on the international community to take prompt action to ensure that Israel upholds its legal obligations by promoting and protecting the right to equality and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health for the Palestinian population under its control. Al Mezan also calls on all humanitarian and aid organizations to continue their efforts to strengthen the resilience of the Palestinian health system and create conditions that are conducive to good health.
 Given the limited amount of vaccine available, priority was given to frontline health workers and immunocompromised individuals, including the elderly.