While the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting all parts of the world severely, the ability to control and resist it is not the same everywhere. Physical distancing and isolation mean nothing for families packed together in slums and refugee camps. Fighting a pandemic is impossible also when decades of repression and colonialism deliberately destroy the public health system, as in the case of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Gaza Strip has been under siege for 13 years. Israel’s blockade of materials entering Gaza includes limits on essentials such as medicines and medical equipment. For a population of 2 million people, there are only 56 ventilators and 40 intensive care beds. Compounding this is the poor condition of public health services, the shortage of water and electricity. Similarly with the occupied West Bank, there is approximately one bed per 1,000 people, less than 20 intensive care specialists and less than 120 ventilators in public hospitals.
It is not enough that Israel has systematically destroyed the public health system in the West bank and Gaza, it is also denying Palestinians the means to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Israeli forces confiscated a field clinic for Covid-19 victims in the Jordan Valley. Israeli officials arrested volunteers in East Jerusalem who were disinfecting the Al Aqsa mosque and the Old City. They have also hinted at restricting travel for Palestinians to the western part of the city, adding to the already existing entrenched restrictions on mobility for Palestinians. While a growing number of cases are being reported from Israel as well but it was the Palestinian city of Bethlehem which was closed down when cases appeared there in the beginning of March.
There are over 5000 Palestinians in overcrowded Israeli jails, living in unhygienic conditions. This includes women, elderly and children. Israeli authorities paid no heed to releasing prisoners due to this crisis, and there is fear that some prisoners might have been exposed to the virus. While there are moves to grant furlough in many places including in the Arab world, Israel has squarely refused to heed these calls.
Israeli ministries of health, transport and education initially did not publish Covid-19 related guidelines in Arabic, the language spoken by Palestinians in Israel. Only due to pressure from organizations and after this information was made available by them, did the ministries move to make the guidelines available in Arabic.
In a shocking incident, which is not unprecedented in terms of the vicious brutality exhibited, a Palestinian worker was suspected by his Israeli employee of being unwell due to Covid-19. He called the israeli police on him, which abandoned this elderly sick man at a checkpoint. He collapsed after crossing the checkpoint and it was hours before he could get any help.
Israeli colonialism and apartehid are continuing unabated and in fact exacerbating the challenge posed by the virus for Palestinians. Additionally, the media focus will move away from Palestine in the coming weeks as Covid-19 will continue to take centrestage. It is therefore urgent to keep building pressure on Israel to end the blockade. Without this, the spread of the virus will be catastrophic for Palestinians.