Beset by virus, hospitals struggle with wounded
Gaza City, Gaza Strip — Just weeks ago, the Gaza Strip’s feeble health system was struggling with a runaway surge of coronavirus cases. Authorities cleared out hospital operating rooms, suspended nonessential care and redeployed doctors to patients having difficulty breathing.
Then, the bombs began to fall.
Doctors across the crowded coastal enclave are now reallocating intensive care unit beds and scrambling to keep up with a very different health crisis: treating blast and shrapnel wounds, bandaging cuts and performing amputations.
Gutted by years of conflict, the impoverished health care system in the territory of more than 2 million people has always been vulnerable. Bitter division between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and a nearly 14-year blockade imposed by Israel with Egypt’s help also has strangled the infrastructure. There are shortages of equipment and supplies such as blood bags, surgical lamps, anesthesia and antibiotics. Personal protection gear, breathing machines and oxygen tanks remain even scarcer.
Last month, Gaza’s daily coronavirus cases and deaths hit record highs, fueled by the spread of a variant that first appeared in Britain, relaxation of movement restrictions during Ramadan, and deepening public apathy and intransigence.
In the bomb-scarred territory where the unemployment rate is 50%, the need for personal survival often trumps the pleas of public health experts. While virus testing remains limited, the outbreak has infected more than 105,700 people, according to health authorities, and killed 976.
As cases climbed last year, stirring fears of a health care catastrophe, authorities set aside clinics just for COVID-19 patients. But that changed as airstrikes pummeled the territory.
Nurses at the European Hospital in the town of Khan Younis, frantically needing room for the wounded, moved dozens of virus patients in the middle of the night to a different building, said hospital director Yousef al-Akkad. Its surgeons and specialists, who had deployed elsewhere for the virus, rushed back to treat head injuries, fractures and abdominal wounds.
If the conflict intensifies, the hospital won’t be able to care for the virus patients, al-Akkad said.
“We have only 15 intensive care beds, and all I can do is pray,” he said, adding that because the hospital lacks surgical supplies and expertise, he’s already arranged to send one child to Egypt for reconstructive shoulder surgery. “I pray these airstrikes will stop soon.”
At Shifa, authorities also moved the wounded into its 30 beds that had been set aside for virus patients. Thursday night was the quietest this week for the ICU, as bombs had largely fallen elsewhere in Gaza. Patients with broken bones and other wounds lay amid the din of beeping monitors, intercoms and occasional shouts by doctors. A few relatives huddled around them, recounting the chaotic barrage.
“About 12 people down in one airstrike. It was 6 p.m. in the street. Some were killed, including my two cousins and young sister. It’s like this every day,” said 22-year-old Atallah al-Masri, sitting beside his wounded brother, Ghassan.
Hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia lamented the series of blows to Gaza’s health system.
“The Gaza Strip is under siege for 14 years, and the health sector is exhausted. Then comes the coronavirus pandemic,” he said, adding that most of the equipment is as old as the blockade and can’t be sent out for repairs.
Now, his teams already strained by virus cases are treating bombing victims, more than half of whom are critical cases needing surgery.
“They work relentlessly,” he added