Prognosticators have pointed out that planet earth has a date with an invisible enemy every 100 years or so, as if Mother Nature is punishing humankind for the harm we cause to her. We destroy forests, we pollute, we use prohibited weapons, we slaughter animals until they are extinct and we kill each other.
These feel like some of my worst days in Gaza, due to fear over what is to come. The government lifted most of our earlier, short-lived lockdown, with only partial closures in place—saying the virus is largely under control. Many people here no longer think they need to worry about it. But public health authorities are watching an increase in active cases with alarm: Between October 27 and November 2,1,408 new cases were detected, about 200 a day. Meanwhile, they say, hospitals are near capacity and there’s a lack of medical and laboratory equipment. And winter hasn’t even fully set in yet!
We are 2 million people living in an open-air prison of just 365 square kilometers. Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007, preventing most exports and many imports that are vital to grow an economy, like construction materials. And the head of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions just announced that just the uncertainty and the (relatively minimal) closures to date have pushed unemployment to about 70%. No wonder the government has resisted further steps. Many people in my neighbourhood are day laborers who cannot get work and thus cannot afford food for their families.
One of my brother's friends doesn’t obey the lockdowns. He goes out stealthily, hoping no one will see him. My brother worries and asks him to stay home. But Rashid insists he cannot. He is a driver and must go whenever someone calls him. Without his income as a driver, he will not be able to meet his family’s needs. He says that after witnessing three wars, he will not be afraid of this invisible enemy. How can the world convince people, who face the threat of death every day from one of the strongest militaries, that they might die from a microscopic virus?
A few days ago, one of my own friends realized she had been in contact with someone who is infected with the coronavirus. She called the relevant authorities, who told her she should isolate herself at home because there are no more facilities available to receive those who have been exposed. The problem is that “home” means all the people you love—children, parents, grandparents, all crowded together—are now exposed too. My friend has a baby who is three months old. She is terrified at the thought of infecting her baby.
Yesterday I saw from my window a woman walking in the street with her kids. Perhaps they could not stand to stay at home any longer, with unreliable electricity and a poor internet connection. I was confused about whether to be angry at her behaviour or feel sympathy. I remembered my friends in Europe who, since the spread of COVID-19, began taking their kids for walks in the woods to avoid anyone who might be infected. But where can we go? Gaza is covered in concrete and crowded, building to building. I remembered my visit to the occupied territories last year; there are forest there—but under the control of the Israeli occupation. I cannot take my children there.
I asked a friend, a physician for Doctors Without Borders, for which I worked until a funding cut, what he saw ahead. He replied, “It will be a difficult phase for the beloved Gaza Strip. As we all know, the health system is already dilapidated due to the blockade and everything else the Strip has endured. Powerful countries have seen their health systems paralyzed by the number of sick people, so you can imagine how our condition could be!”
That evening, I heard on news that new cases had been found in my city, Khan Younis, in the southern area of the Gaza Strip. I am fearful for my husband, my kids and all of the other people I love—even everyone I don’t know. Public health officials around the world agree that herd immunity is a solution that comes only at a horrific cost. But here, we seem to have no choice. It is an enemy like the one we faced from Israel in 2008-9, 2012 and 2018. This time, however, our opponent is invisible.