When Nima Amraa returned to the Gaza Strip from neighboring Egypt earlier this month, she was surprised to learn she was being placed in a makeshift quarantine center set up by the ruling Hamas group, The Associated Press reported.
But her initial jitters turned to fear when two fellow travelers in another facility tested positive for the coronavirus — the first cases to be confirmed in Gaza.
“Once there were cases of the virus spreading, we started to feel afraid and disappointed,” Amraa, a 30-year-old journalist, said by phone from quarantine, where she has spent a week and a half sleeping in a room with five other women and sharing a bathroom.
The virus found a way into Gaza, even though the Mediterranean enclave has been largely cut off from the world by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas militants seized it 13 years ago.
Yet the terrifying possibility of an outbreak in one of the world’s most crowded territories — 2 million people squeezed into an area twice the size of Washington, D.C. —does not seem to have registered fully. Many in Gaza seem to accept Hamas assurances that the threat is contained.
In the meantime, Hamas is racing to build two massive quarantine facilities — hoping to prevent the disease from spreading and overwhelming Gaza’s already shattered health system.
The construction was ordered after photos surfaced from makeshift centers — mostly schools — showing people celebrating birthday parties with visiting relatives, food being delivered by volunteers and groups of people smoking water pipes together.
Amraa said it was immediately clear that the school where she was placed was not prepared to house so many people.
“I was worried after seeing that we will sleep on mattresses on the floor and we will be six in one room,” she explained. “We eat together and there is no isolation.”
She said she and her roommates take precautions, such as avoiding direct contact and keeping their beds two meters apart from each other. But that might not be enough to keep the virus from spreading. Last week, seven Hamas security guards who were in the facility housing the first two cases became infected themselves, AP added.
“We have been very clear on how the quarantine facilities should look like and offer in terms of facilities and services and support,” said Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, the World Health Organization’s director in the Palestinian territories. “But this is obviously easier said than done in Gaza, where there is substantial shortage in almost everything.”
Although movement in and out of Gaza has been heavily restricted since 2007, it is not cut off altogether. The first two virus cases were men who had returned from a religious conference in Pakistan, part of a wave of hundreds of returnees who were placed into quarantine.
No one knows how much farther the virus has spread. Only 20% of the roughly 1,700 people in quarantine have been tested.
Gaza’s people live mainly in densely populated cities and refugee camps. The health care system is in shambles — a result of the blockade, three wars between Hamas and Israel and chronic under-funding due to infighting between Hamas and the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.