GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Just a few weeks ago, the Gaza Strip’s weak health system was grappling with an outbreak of coronavirus cases. Authorities have cleaned operating rooms in hospitals, suspended non-essential care and redeployed doctors to patients with breathing difficulties.
Then the bombs started to fall.
The violence of this week between Israel and Gaza, Hamas leaders killed 119 Palestinians, including 31 children, and injured 830 people in the impoverished territory. Israeli airstrikes shelled apartments, detonated cars and knocked over buildings.
Medics in the overcrowded coastal enclave are now reassigning intensive care unit beds and scrambling to deal with a very different health crisis: treating blast and shrapnel wounds, healing cuts, and performing amputations.
Distraught relatives did not wait for the ambulances, transporting the injured by car or on foot to Shifa hospital, the largest in the territory. Exhausted doctors rushed from patient to patient, frantically bandaging the shrapnel wounds to stop the bleeding. Others gathered in the hospital morgue, waiting with stretchers to remove the bodies for burial.
At the Indonesian hospital in the northern city of Jabaliya, the clinic overflowed after bombs fell nearby. Blood was everywhere, the victims lying on the hallway floors. Relatives have invaded the emergency room, crying for their loved ones and cursing Israel.
“Before the military attacks, we had significant shortages and could barely handle the second wave (of the virus),” Abdelatif al-Hajj, head of Gaza’s health ministry, said over the phone as the bombs thundered back. -plan. “Now victims are coming from all directions, really critical victims. I fear a total collapse. “
Ravaged by years of conflict, the impoverished health system of the territory of more than 2 million people has always been vulnerable. The bitter divide between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and an almost 14-year blockade imposed by Israel with help from Egypt have also strangled the infrastructure. There are shortages of equipment and supplies such as blood bags, surgical lights, anesthesia and antibiotics. Personal protective equipment, breathing apparatus and oxygen tanks remain even rarer.
Daily coronavirus cases and deaths in Gaza reached record highs last month, fueled by the spread of a variant that first appeared in Britain, the easing of movement restrictions during Ramadan and the increased public apathy and intransigence.
In bomb-scarred territory where the unemployment rate is 50%, the need for personal survival often trumps appeals from public health experts. While viral testing remains limited, the epidemic has infected more than 105,700 people, according to health officials, and killed 976.
As cases rose last year, sparking fears of a health catastrophe, authorities have reserved clinics only for patients with COVID-19. But that changed when the airstrikes hit the territory.
Nurses at the European hospital in the city of Khan Younis, who desperately needed room for the injured, transferred dozens of patients infected with the virus in the middle of the night to another building, the director of the hospital said. Yousef al-Akkad hospital. Its surgeons and specialists, who had deployed elsewhere for the virus, rushed to treat head trauma, fractures and abdominal wounds.
If the conflict escalates, the hospital will not be able to take care of patients infected with the virus, al-Akkad said.
“We only have 15 intensive care beds, and all I can do is pray,” he said, adding that because the hospital lacks surgical equipment and expertise, it has already organized the sending of a child to Egypt for reconstructive shoulder surgery. “I pray that these airstrikes will stop soon.”
In Shifa, authorities also moved the injured to its 30 beds reserved for patients infected with the virus. Thursday night was the quietest this week for the ICU, with the bombs falling largely elsewhere in Gaza. Patients with broken bones and other injuries lay amid the din of sound monitors, intercoms and the occasional screaming of doctors. A few relatives huddled around them, recounting the chaotic barrage.
“About 12 people in a single airstrike. It was 6 p.m. in the street. Some were killed, including my two cousins and my younger sister. It’s like that every day, ”said Atallah al-Masri, 22, sitting next to his injured brother, Ghassan.
Hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia lamented the latest round of beatings to Gaza’s health system.
“The Gaza Strip has been under siege for 14 years and the health sector is exhausted. Next is the coronavirus pandemic, ”he said, adding that most of the equipment is as old as the blockade and cannot be sent for repair.
Now, its teams, already strained by cases of the virus, are treating the victims of the bombings, more than half of which are critical cases requiring surgery.
“They work tirelessly,” he added.
To make matters worse, Israeli airstrikes hit two clinics north of Gaza City on Tuesday. The strikes ravaged the Hala al-Shawa health center, forcing workers to evacuate and damaging the Indonesian hospital, according to the World Health Organization. Israel, already under pressure from International Criminal Court investigation in possible war crimes during the 2014 war, reiterated this week that he is warning people living in targeted areas to flee. However, the airstrikes killed civilians and damaged Gaza’s infrastructure.
The violence has also closed a few dozen health centers performing coronavirus tests, said Sacha Bootsma, director of the WHO office in Gaza. This week, authorities carried out some 300 tests a day, up from 3,000 before the fighting began.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, has ordered staff to stay home outside of its 22 clinics for their safety. Those now-closed centers had also administered coronavirus vaccines, a valuable resource in a location that waited months to receive a limited delivery from the UN-backed COVAX program. These doses will expire in a few weeks and be thrown away, with “huge implications for the ability of authorities to mobilize additional vaccines in the future,” Bootsma said.
For those newly injured, however, the virus remains an afterthought.
The last thing Mohammad Nassar remembers before an airstrike was walking home with a friend on a street. When he came, he said, “we found ourselves lying on the ground.”
Now the 31-year-old is hooked up to a tangle of tubes and monitors in the surgical ward of Shifa Hospital, with a broken right arm and a shrapnel wound in his stomach.
DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.