The arrival of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip, an impoverished enclave where the health care system has been gutted by years of conflict, raised fears Sunday the pandemic may soon prey on some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.
Authorities in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, confirmed its first two cases overnight, in returnees who had come from Pakistan.
An outbreak could wreak havoc on the Palestinian territory, which is home to over 2 million people, many living in cramped cities and refugee camps. There are similar concerns about a catastrophe if the virus turns up in war-torn Syria, Libya or Yemen.
The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks, but it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators.
Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization's Gaza office, said the territory only has 62 ventilators, with all but 15 already in use. He estimates the territory needs 50 to 100 more to address an outbreak.
With its current capacity, Soboh estimated Gaza's hospitals can handle the first 100 cases if they come in gradually.
"If there is a spread to hundreds, this will cause a challenge to the health care system," Soboh said.
Gaza's isolation likely delayed the arrival of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 300,000 people worldwide and killed more than 13,000. More than 90,000 people have recovered.
Hundreds of Gazans have returned home in the past two weeks, but only 92 people have been examined, highlighting the territory's limited testing capacity. More than 1,270 people have been quarantined at hospitals, hotels and schools after crossing into Gaza from Israel and Egypt, according to the Health Ministry.
The ministry said the two who tested positive had been isolated at a field hospital upon arrival and did not mingle with others in quarantine.
Several countries in the Middle East have sealed their borders and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses. On Friday, Hamas ordered the closure of wedding halls and weekly street markets, after earlier closing Gaza's schools. Sanitation crews have also been patrolling the streets and public buildings, spraying disinfectant.