It was almost 1 a.m. when I read the news that Gaza had identified its first two coronavirus cases. My heart beat rapidly and fear flushed like ice water through my body. I continued to read but my eyes teared up and everything looked blurred, like a gauzy curtain had suddenly dropped down. I attempted to blink the tears out of my eyes and continue reading.
Those two people had returned to Gaza from Pakistan. And although all travelers have immediately been quarantined, no one here trusts that this has kept the infection contained. The virus is official in Gaza, where our hospitals are already short on vital medicine and equipment, people are crowded in like sardines (we have been banned from traveling for 14 years!), and cleanliness is difficult when water supplies are contaminated and garbage collection doesn’t exist. I searched for evidence that would allow me to label the reports as “fake news,” but I knew the source was verified.
I froze, flashing back to a recent conversation. I was riding in a taxi and the driver remarked on how much his passenger load had already declined with just the fear of virus hanging over the Strip. He was almost in tears when he told me that he had kids and if he doesn’t work every day, he won’t be able to feed them. The same is true for my older siblings; a curfew is coming, like in the West Bank, and their simple work will come to a stop. That’s the case for the majority of people in this place; they have no savings. And due to the 14-year Israeli blockade, our government won’t be able to afford the massive stimulus the U.S. and European governments are planning. Will they step in to help us? I very much doubt it. They’re all stretched and we’ve never been a priority.
Here I am, up at al-Fajr prayer time, which is at 4-5 a.m. I am over-thinking and freaking out in silence. I am unleashing my stress via writing, but that’s not the real reason I’m up. I’m up because I want to tell Dad to not go to the mosque for the al-Fajr prayer. I want him to pray at home because I instinctively assume it’s safer. Dad has major faith in God, so he went out anyway and assured me everything will be all right. I believe in God, too, but I wouldn’t go to public places, even mosques, at this time. When Dad returned, I felt soothed in spite of the fact that I have no evidence the virus is in my neighborhood. The virus infects the mind as well as the body, stealing away our sense of safety–always in short supply in Gaza.
The blockade is no 'gift'
Because this virus has been slow to come to Gaza while it spread around the world, people here felt more secure. We had high hopes we wouldn't have to deal with the virus because of the blockade–an ironic “silver lining” to this humanitarian outrage. There was even talk on social media about the “benefits” of the siege, which I found sort of shocking. Yes, the blockade helped prevent COVID-19 from invading Gaza for days and weeks, but realistically, it was just a matter of time. And this blockade is the reason hundreds and maybe thousands of people here have died because they couldn’t get access to proper medical treatment. My own mother has suffered severe pain from trigeminal neuralgia, and while treatments are available elsewhere that could bring her relief, she has no access here. She has told me so many times that she’d rather just die.
The blockade also is the reason hundreds of Palestinian youths have lost arms and legs in the Great Return March–punished by snipers for protesting their imprisonment. It is the reason why hundreds of extraordinary students lost opportunities to study at foreign colleges and universities because they could not travel. It is the reason why talented Palestinian athletes and artists cannot participate in international workshops and competitions. And it’s the reason why our economy is so sick our unemployment rate is the highest in the world (70% among youths). It’s insane how the “novel coronavirus” has gotten people to be grateful to live under oppression!
COVID-19 is no joke
Until the identification of the first two cases, many Gazans made fun of those who feared the coronavirus. They didn’t take it seriously and mocked those who did. Some believed the scare was just an illusion, a political game some countries were playing for economic reasons. I was even a bit like that. When a quarantine center was set up in the hotel across from my home, just a few meters away, I laughed carelessly. But now I won’t open the windows or spend any time in the neighborhood.
Maybe the reason Palestinians in Gaza first reacted this way because we have been “numbed” by war. Real danger is an Israeli F-16 warplane striking a building in a civilian neighborhood and killing tens of citizens, we think.
An Argentinian friend texted me earlier (before the two cases were found) to warn about the virus. She told me to buy canned food and cleaning materials, and to stay home. I explained to her I already lived through three wars, so I know how to survive. I understood, on one level, that the coronavirus is not any less dangerous than Israeli forces. But we weren’t yet in “war mode.” People hadn’t saved food yet. They still went out, parties still happened and weddings still took place. Now, none of that will remain the same.
I understand that it’s hard to stay home for days, weeks or months. My mother’s illness prevents her from leaving her room most of the year. She has had to adapt, so must everyone else.
I do not mean to be negative, but I need to speak the truth. The Israeli blockade of Gaza may have protected it temporarily, but now it will prevent us from caring properly for our people. More people will get infected, and Gaza will morph once again from the “world’s safest spot” to the world’s latest hot spot for coronavirus cases and deaths. Scary numbers will be published as ignorance and poverty push people to take risks and thus get infected. A storm is heading here (maybe it already is) and insecurity is taking over.
And once the world finds a vaccine for the virus, Gaza will be the last to get it.