On Wednesday morning, 15 September 2021, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights held an expert workshop titled, “The Third Wave of COVID-19: Infections, Challenges and Confrontation Techniques.” The participants included representatives from Gaza’s Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), local and international institutions, as well as members of the science faculties at Palestinian universities.
The workshop, which is an essential part of Al Mezan’s mandate to promote respect for economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to health, in the Gaza Strip, analyzed the epidemiological approaches in Gaza, particularly those of the Ministry of Health, and formed a series of recommendations aimed at helping the relevant authorities to identify deficiencies and organize an effective response.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Issam Younis, Al Mezan’s General Director, recalled that the Gaza Strip is an occupied territory and thus Israel has legal obligations as an occupying power vis-à-vis the protected Palestinian people, including the protection of their determinants of health. Mr. Younis also highlighted the adverse effects of Israel’s comprehensive closure policy on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which has largely contributed to the depletion of Gaza’s health sector. Additional challenges are now emerging as the pandemic infection and mortality rates continue to rise. Years of repeated Israeli violations, Mr. Younis noted, have placed the Gaza Strip in a state of chronic de-development.
Dr. Majdi Duhair, Director of the Preventive Medicine Department at the Ministry of Health, spoke about the Ministry’s plans to curb the third wave of COVID-19 infections despite Israel’s ongoing closure measures and the shortage of medical drugs, vaccines, and testing kits. Dr. Duhair noted that the Gaza Strip is about to experience the peak of this wave, which he described as exceptionally challenging with the Delta variant rapidly spreading, leading to the death of patients in their thirties and forties in some cases.
The Ministry has boosted its health care response, including by increasing the number of hospital beds and medical personnel. “The main indicator to our failure to control this wave of COVID-19 outbreak is the current hospital occupancy rate, which is approaching 90%. We expect people who have not encountered the virus before to be infected in the coming couple of weeks. We also expect new virus variants to emerge,” Dr. Duhair explained.
Dr. Duhair also warned about the lack of supply of vaccine doses, noting that only 360,000 people out of 1,100,000 eligible have been vaccinated, and only 50% of the population over age 60 has been vaccinated. Further, in 93% of recorded deaths, the patients were not vaccinated. The Ministry has been throwing away damaged vaccine doses recently delivered to the Gaza Strip after their cold chain was compromised due to Israeli movement restrictions. “Not a single dose entered the Gaza Strip without its safety being verified first,” Dr. Duhair said reassuringly.
Dr. Hind Al-Alami, Health Emergency Officer at the WHO, spoke about the deterioration of the determinants of health in the Gaza Strip, notably the economic turmoil, soaring poverty rates, and consistent shortage of critical medical drugs and supplies, with August 2021 reports showing that 38% of essential drugs and 22% of medical disposables are at ‘zero stock’. He also noted the impact of Israel’s movement restrictions on Palestinian patients’ access to healthcare outside the Gaza Strip. Dr. Al-Alami also stressed the need to adhere to precaution and safety measures to curb the third wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, saying that the WHO and UNRWA work closely with the Ministry of Health to ensure the provision of health services and vaccination programs.
Dr. Khalil Hamad, Medical Officer at UNRWA’s Department of Internal Oversight Services, spoke about the challenges hindering UNRWA’s response to the pandemic and the epidemiological situation at UNRWA schools and educational institutions. Fifty-five percent of all UNRWA teachers were vaccinated, and the organization is seeking to increase the rate to more than 70% through designated vaccination programs for its employees. However, active cases continue to be reported among students and teachers in schools due to overcrowding.
According to Dr. Hamad, UNRWA is undergoing a financial crisis that is negatively affecting the organization’s activities. In addition, the health sector is facing difficulties related to the timely supply of medical drugs because of Israel’s restrictions. This is manifested in Israel’s obstruction of insulin batches intended for diabetic children in Gaza since May 2021. He also addressed vaccine hesitancy, referring to the decline in the number of people willing to take the vaccine.
At the end of the discussion, the workshop participants made several recommendations to address Gaza's chronic health crisis and response to COVID-19, in particular: