Not many months ago, I freaked out when the first coronavirus case was reported by Gaza health authorities–a traveler returning home from abroad. But then, he was quickly quarantined and the same followed for many other travelers since then. We all thought the blockade was a shield for us. Gaza is a big cage and for once, we thought, our imprisonment had an advantage: It’ll stop us from becoming infected just like it has stopped us from receiving medication and so many other imports.
But COVID-19 managed to overcome the odds and spread inside Gaza. I feel like a rat inside that cage now, unable to do anything but wait to be burned alive as the COVID fire spreads and surrounds me. And…I’m freaking out again.
Gaza does deserve credit, though, for keeping the coronavirus at bay for seven months, while it spread like wildfire in so many other countries. We quickly quarantined and tested any travelers entering, while we continued going to mosque, praying for the rest of the world. Students went back to school, and our organizations and institutions reopened. Our markets revived and our streets were colorful, full of energy again as we, the people, lived the “normal” life we didn’t appreciate enough before 2020.
For seven months, the Strip became a preferred destination as hundreds of Palestinians abroad tried to return to Gaza–a which hasn’t happened for as far back as I can remember. Gaza was actually a safe place in a deadly world. Gaza proved once again that Palestinians are extraordinary and could overcome the odds.
Yes, we’re extraordinary, but in the end, we are all the same and we, too, succumbed. In the absence of thorough public statements by government authorities and balanced news reporting, rumors on social media rushed in to fill the void. The first accounts I read said a Palestinian woman, desperate to take her young child to Israel for cancer treatment she can’t get here, tried to exit through Erez Crossing. She was turned away, then accepted the following day. What she didn’t know, according to the story, was that the Israeli border guards had deliberately contaminated her ID and other documents with the virus. By the time she finally was allowed out of Gaza, she had infected her husband, who owns a supermarket in a very crowded area of the El-Maghazi Camp, and other family members. (I later learned from a fellow WANNer who had read posts on health care professionals' pages that COVID-19 had actually begun spreading into Gaza earlier this month through a medical worker. That old woman actually probably saved many lives by serving as a warning alarm sooner rather than later.)
The news that cases of infection had been found inside Gaza broke on Monday, August 24, at 11 p.m.. I had returned home from Gaza City an hour before. (I work for We Are Not Numbers there, but live in Rafah, about 45 minutes away by car.) I had planned to spend the night at a friend’s place, but since I didn’t have to work the next day, I decided against it. Dad later told me he had been about to call and tell me to stay there, because of the hour. I’m grateful he didn’t, a lockdown was declared that same night, and I would’ve been away from my family. In such times, being with family helps me get through anything.
Ironically, I’m not as scared as I was when I first learned about the virus sweeping the world. I’m actually enjoying being at home. Plus, I love new experiences, and this curfew/lockdown is my first. I’ve long heard stories of curfews in Gaza when Israeli soldiers and settlers lived in Gaza and controlled everything here. As a Palestinian, it felt like a “rite of passage” I should endure. I feel like such life experiences make us who we are.
And also: Being quarantined at home isn’t the worst thing for me. I’ve been depressed and not able to deal with people well. I couldn’t think straight, messing up and losing friends I love. This quarantine is giving me the break I need to organize my thoughts and reclaim myself. Sure, sometimes I feel isolated and I want to weep. But there’s also refreshment and release.
I didn’t rush out to buy groceries like most people in Gaza after the breaking news. I don’t think Gaza will run out of food. Dad always says no one here has ever died of starvation. This time, I’m depending on God. He’s got our backs. He’s out there, watching over us and making sure everything happens for a reason. This could be the psychopath inside me talking, but I think this quarantine is positive for many reasons–for me, at least. In addition to the break I need, I think it will help We Are Not Numbers reach our annual fundraising goal, since all eyes are on Gaza now. I have the same thought every time Israel attacks us: Finally, someone will pay attention to us! Every hardship can be an opportunity.
I’m aware that maybe I am not sufficiently alarmed. What if this outbreak takes over Gaza and starts killing larger numbers of people every day? That has been the case around the world, especially in Italy, Spain, Brazil, India and America. And once a vaccine is available, will Gaza get sufficient quantities at the same time as other countries? I doubt it. The fact is, we’ve survived three wars here that killed thousands. How is the coronavirus any more alarming than that? The “international community” did nothing. It simply watched while we lived through the misery in the red and black of blood and coffins.
COVID-19 isn’t new to Gaza, world. Ultimately it is an occupier in the form of a virus, and we’ve always had that in what you call Israel. Now we have two occupiers. But we also have faith, and we believe we’ll overcome both occupiers. It’s just a matter of time.