Insufficient attention is being paid to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis playing out in the Gaza Strip, according to a team of international experts.

In a new, detailed study (published today: Wednesday 3 February 2021) the researchers from Palestine, Italy and the UK highlight the experiences of those living in Gaza and coping with the pandemic from July to December 2020. Their report reveals acute challenges over access to healthcare and other essential resources, as well as the economic toll the virus has placed on individuals and their families.

Results from the qualitative study (which included interviews, WhatsApp recorded notes and the perspectives of youth in Gaza through a diary exercise) focused on three main themes: the spread of public health information about COVID; the uptake of interventions intended to curb the spread; and the socio-economic impact this has all had.

The report suggests that awareness of the risks and understanding of the public health measures aimed to reduce these is generally good. However, it finds there has often been insufficient support to enable individuals to self-isolate, many of whom, as a result, see the public health measures as more challenging than the disease itself.

The report argues that these challenges have been fundamentally exacerbated by the on-going Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, described in the report as ‘the dominant factor in the worsening humanitarian situation…[resulting in] the ill-preparedness of the local healthcare system, economy and communities to cope’. With their conclusions, the authors join the calls for urgent action from the international community to lift the blockade in order to increase the flow of essential healthcare for Palestinians.

Funded by Elrha and UK Aid, the project is the first to focus on the experience of COVID-19 across Gaza. The territory is densely populated: home to around 2 million people living within just 365 square kms. Water scarcity, temperamental electricity and poor sewage treatment facilities all combine to undermine hygiene and sanitation.

In this context, effective social distancing measures and quarantine procedures have been extremely challenging to implement. According to latest WHO estimates from 31 January, there have been 51,312 confirmed cases and 522 deaths from COVID in Gaza since reporting began in July 2020, with numbers still increasing.

Dr Jason Hart, Principal Investigator from the University of Bath says: “This report brings to light the very many challenges people living in Gaza have faced throughout this pandemic. It’s our hope that by drawing attention to these realities, tangible actions can be taken to improve a situation which is frankly unjust and unsustainable.

“We are deeply grateful to the many people who shared with our team their experiences, perceptions and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges to keeping themselves and their families safe.”

Lead researcher Dr Caitlin Procter from the European University Institute in Florence explains: “Israel’s blockade has devastated the economy in Gaza, and this is having a major impact on the ability of people to comply with lockdown measures when doing so means losing their already limited sources of income. Many do not seek medical treatment for other health conditions, driven by fear of being infected by COVID, and the severe loss of income that a diagnosis would incur. For the same reason, some healthcare workers were reluctant to treat COVID patients; and many individuals with symptoms do not go for testing.”

Dr Mohammed Al-Rozzi, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow from the University of Bath and member of the research team added: “Both the blockade and Palestinian political division have left the Palestinians in Gaza in the most vulnerable situation for many decades affecting their resilience in facing the ongoing pandemic.”

Responses from Palestinians in Gaza:

Responses from individuals highlight a range of challenges: social, economic and psychological:

“People think that in any case they will die. If they follow the procedures and stay at home, they will not be able to bring a livelihood and feed their children, and they will die of hunger. And if they do not follow the procedures and go out to search for their daily sustenance, they may contract the virus, and this may kill them.”

“What the government is providing is only places to stay to implement the quarantine. Whereas regarding the immunity-strengthening vitamins, medicines, or even food supplies, this is all at the expense of the infected person. So, people prefer not to inform the authorities if symptoms of infection with the virus started to appear.”

“Men are accustomed to going out to work all day […]. Because of the difficult economic situation and the commitment to stay at home for a long time, the man shows his dissatisfaction with this situation and his inability to meet the needs of his family members by practicing violence towards his children.”

Access the full report