GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The arrival of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip, an impoverished enclave where the health care system has been gutted by years of conflict, raised fears Sunday the pandemic may soon prey on some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.
Authorities in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, confirmed its first two cases overnight, in returnees who had come from Pakistan.
An outbreak could wreak havoc on the Palestinian territory, which is home to over two million people, many living in cramped cities and refugee camps. There are similar concerns about a catastrophe if the virus turns up in war-torn Syria, Libya or Yemen.
The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators.
Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office, said the territory only has 62 ventilators, with all but 15 already in use. He estimates the territory needs 50 to 100 more to address an outbreak.
With its current capacity, he estimated Gaza’s hospitals can handle the first 100 cases if they come in gradually. “If there is a spread to hundreds, this will cause a challenge to the health care system,” he said.
Gaza’s isolation likely delayed the arrival of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 300,000 people worldwide and killed more than 13,000. More than 90,000 people have recovered.
Hundreds of Gazans have returned home in the past two weeks, but only 92 people have been examined, highlighting the territory’s limited testing capacity. More than 1,270 people have been quarantined at hospitals, hotels and schools after crossing into Gaza from Israel and Egypt, according to the Health Ministry.
The ministry said the two who tested positive had been isolated at a field hospital upon arrival and did not mingle with others in quarantine.
Several countries in the Middle East have sealed their borders and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses. On Friday, Hamas ordered the closure of wedding halls and weekly street markets, after earlier closing Gaza’s schools. Sanitation crews have also been patrolling the streets and public buildings, spraying disinfectant.
In Libya, rival governments that have been at war for months are each taking measures to prevent an outbreak. They have suspended public transportation, closed mosques, schools and shops, and imposed a nightly curfew as they scramble to mobilize medical resources.
The country has been mired in chaos since the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Moammar Gadhafi. Fighting in the capital since April has displaced tens of thousands of people, and Libya is also home to an estimated 50,000 refugees and migrants from other countries.
Many of the migrants, including hundreds intercepted at the sea while trying to reach Europe, have been detained in squalid, overcrowded detention centers.
In Lebanon, army helicopters flew over Beirut and other areas, including the eastern Bekaa Valley, urging people to stay home unless they have to leave for an emergency. In the capital, army and police patrols drove through the streets ordering groups of people to disperse.
Lebanon ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses several days ago and the police in Beirut have cleared out the city’s famed Mediterranean boardwalk. Lebanon, with a population of around five million, including hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, has reported 230 confirmed cases and four deaths.
Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi told reporters that there will be a “crackdown” against any gathering of people. “The situation is scary. Let us save ourselves, our loved ones and our country before it’s too late,” he said.
The worst outbreak in the region is in Iran, which has reported more than 21,600 cases and 1,685 deaths, according to government figures released Sunday.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on Sunday refused US assistance to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus could have been created by Americans.
Iran faces crushing US sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets. But Iranian officials have also come under heavy criticism for not imposing stricter measures early on to curb the spread of the pandemic.
On Sunday, Iran imposed a two-week closure on major shopping malls and centers across the country to prevent spreading the virus. Pharmacies, supermarkets, groceries and bakeries will remain open.
Iraq has extended a country-wide curfew until March 28. It has the highest virus death toll in the region after Iran, with 20 fatalities among 233 confirmed cases. The country is still recovering from decades of conflict, including the costly war against the Islamic State group.
The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, announced a 14-day curfew, ordering everyone to stay at home except for security forces, medics and food sellers. It also closed roads between cities, towns and villages.
It was not immediately clear how people would continue to buy basic goods. In the biblical town of Bethlehem, the epicenter of the West Bank outbreak, which has been under lockdown for weeks, residents shop at stores near their homes.
The Palestinian Authority has reported 59 cases, including 17 who recovered.
Israel has also clamped down, imposing increasingly strict measures to keep people at home. It has reported 945 cases, the highest number in the region outside Iran. But the uptick appears to be linked to increased testing. The Health Ministry, which has tested more than 17,000 people, has reported one death and says only 20 patients are in serious condition.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Bassem Mroue in Beirut; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Image: Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus, at the main market in Gaza City, Thursday, March 19, 2020. The Middle East has some 20,000 cases of the virus, with most cases in Iran or linked to travel from Iran. The vast majority of people recover from COVID-19. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)