With a ceasefire in place, now we are beginning to rebuild Gaza’s health service | Raja Musleh and Alaa Alkhatib

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Today the streets of Gaza City are full of cheering in response to the news of a ceasefire. But during the 11 days of the aerial bombardment by Israel, the streets told a different story: they were empty, except for ambulances rushing to hospitals and people displaced from their homes by bombings looking for a place to sleep. It was a ghost town with the soundtrack of a nightmare: explosions, sirens and the cries of our children as we sheltered in our kitchens at night would punctuate the eerie silence.

Now we are left to pick up the pieces. And though we hope the ceasefire will hold and the bombing has ended, the health sector in Gaza is still on the brink of collapse. This is something you may have heard many times over the past 16 months, as the world has dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic with differing degrees of success. But in Gaza it is to another magnitude: trauma is always most harrowing to deal with. Children came into hospitals torn apart. At least 12 families were completely wiped out, all of their family members killed. Hospitals battled against massive power cuts as they tried to save critically wounded patients.

The devastating escalation in hostilities resulted in a sustained bombardment on Gaza, which left 230 dead and at least 1,900 people injured from airstrikes. Before this escalation, we only had about eight hours of electricity a day. Many electricity lines were left damaged by the airstrikes and one of the hospital’s three electricity generators stopped working. We would constantly worry that this would cut off patients’ oxygen supplies and lead to even more lives lost. Health facilities issued urgent appeals for donations of blood. Health workers tried to save as many lives as they could, though we did not have enough medicine, resources, or manpower to keep up with the rising number of injuries each day.

Gaza’s health system has suffered from chronic issues for years. The region’s 14-year blockade has destroyed our ability to get much-needed medical equipment and supplies. Over 42% of essential medications in Gaza are consistently depleted. There is also a critical shortage of doctors, nurses, and midwives. Those with severe illnesses that need continuing treatment, such as women with breast cancer, must pray for their exit permits to be approved so they can receive treatment in East Jerusalem. About a third never are. Now we do not know what people with cancer, kidney diseases, and other severe chronic illnesses will do. They are at the most dire risk.

Covid-19 added an additional burden. Before last week’s bombardment, doctors were busy dealing with the rising number of Covid cases in Gaza. The total number of cases stands at 102,323, with 2,980 active cases. ICUs and inpatient wards in hospitals have been simply unable to absorb the influx of Covid-19 patients. Humanitarian organisations such as ours, MedGlobal, have had to fill in the gaps, supporting the health system by providing critically needed personal protective equipment, medical supplies, and PCR machines to allow for rapid Covid testing.

We worry that one more deadly effect of the airstrikes will be an increase in Covid-19 cases, as patients who were recovering were released to free up hospital beds for people injured by airstrikes. Many residential buildings were bombed out, sending hundreds of families to relatives’ homes to find refuge. In many instances, social distancing measures have become impossible. The number of Covid-19 tests offered daily decreased dramatically during the bombardment, from nearly 3,000 a day to only 256. Earlier this week, the al-Remal healthcare centre, the largest primary health clinic in Gaza, which houses the lab responsible for Covid-19 tests, was severely damaged during the airstrikes. All testing and Covid-19 services had to be halted. We worry this will result in a further public health disaster.

Including that on the al-Remal healthcare centre, the Israeli airstrikes damaged six hospitals and 11 primary healthcare centres, in addition to wounding dozens of health workers and killing two of our best doctors: Dr Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at Al-Shifa Hospital, and Dr Mooein Ahmad al-Aloul, one of the only neurologists in Gaza. Now, as we mourn, the remaining hospitals must pick up the pieces from having responded to the needs of casualties gravely injured from the bombardment. We are in dire need of medication, nutrition supplements, personal protective equipment and supplies such as blood bags, anaesthesia and oxygen tanks. We also still need medical assistance such as ventilators to properly confront our Covid-19 crisis.

In the past days, we have hidden in the bottom of apartment complexes with our families as bombings targeted our neighbourhoods. It became normal to remove windows and open the doors of our apartments when we heard that a building near us would be targeted, to avoid shattering the glass and ripping doors to splinters. This helped save our apartments from being smashed, but it didn’t prevent our homes from filling with smoke, sand, and bits of debris after the airstrikes. We regularly hid under tables and in bathrooms, knowing they were the safest places in our apartments. We went long nights without sleeping, just listening to the explosions and praying that our loved ones would be safe.

We are overwhelmed with relief for the ceasefire, but we were praying each day that this situation would not last this long and that lives would be spared. Isn’t it time for the whole world to open their eyes to what has gone on in the Gaza Strip over this past fortnight, and for all governments to work to prevent violations of international law? At least 65 children in Gaza were killed by airstrikes, with hundreds more left injured. We are haunted by thinking about each one of these children who lost their lives, and the others who have lost their families. Please think of them too. This chaos has left behind so many people who are now injured and traumatized. We pray that the bloodshed has ended, but we must work together to bring Gaza’s shattered medical sector back to some semblance of its former health.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: With a ceasefire in place, now we are beginning to rebuild Gaza’s health service | Raja Musleh and Alaa Alkhatib

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