Gaza in lockdown to try to contain its first COVID-19 outbreak


By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, Aug 25 (Reuters) - A lockdown took hold in Gaza on Tuesday after confirmation of the first cases of COVID-19 in the general population of the Palestinian enclave, whose restricted borders have spared it from wide infection.

Health authorities in the Hamas Islamist-run territory of two million people are concerned over the potentially disastrous combination of poverty, densely populated refugee camps and limited hospital facilities in dealing with an outbreak.

A government spokesman said four cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in a single family in a refugee camp, the first in Gaza that did not involve people quarantined in border facilities after crossing into the coastal enclave from Egypt and Israel.

Citing security concerns, both Egypt and Israel maintain tight restrictions at the Gaza frontier, leaving Gazans with little access to the outside world for years and hospitals often complaining of shortages in medical supplies.

"What happens if one of us gets infected?" asked Khaled Sami, a Gaza resident. "When people are seriously ill, they send them into Israel, the West Bank or Egypt. Everything is closed now and who is going to open the gate for someone suffering from the coronavirus?"

With businesses, schools and mosques ordered shuttered late on Monday for at least 48 hours, Gaza's streets were largely deserted. But some people scrambled to buy essentials in groceries and bakeries, a limited number of which were open.

"I hope the whole world can now help Gaza. We can't resolve this issue on our own," said another Gaza resident, who asked to be identified only as Abu Ahmed.

Despite the lockdown, hundreds attended the funeral of four Islamic Jihad gunmen who died in an explosion in Gaza on Monday. The cause of the blast was not immediately disclosed.

But in many places, only the sounds of home generators, used to make up for power cuts that can stretch up to 20 hours a day, could be heard.

The health crisis came amid heightened tensions fuelled by the launching of sporadic rocket attacks and incendiary balloons at Israel, which has responded with air strikes against Hamas positions.

Gaza's health ministry said the four COVID-19 cases were uncovered after a woman travelled to the West Bank, where she tested positive.

The ministry said there have been 110 cases of the coronavirus inside border quarantine facilities and one death since the world pandemic began.

Last month, the Gaza director of the World Health Organization, Abdelnaser Soboh, said the territory's health system could deal with only 500 positive cases at one time.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Angus MacSwan and Alexandra Hudson)

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