Ongoing Nakba amid the pandemic: further catastrophe looms for Palestinian refugees unless international support is maintained

On the anniversary of the Nakba, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is warning that only sustained international support can prevent further humanitarian suffering among Palestinian refugees.

Friday 15 May marks 72 years of the Nakba (‘Catastrophe’), when some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled their homes in historic Palestine during violent events related to the creation of the state of Israel. More than half of the Palestinian population was displaced as hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages were emptied of their inhabitants and destroyed. Decades later, Palestinian refugees continue to be denied their right to return home, with many languishing in refugee camps in Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory and across the region.

Their perpetual displacement and marginalisation has engendered a protracted humanitarian crisis and made Palestinian communities particularly vulnerable to the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. In Gaza, one of the most densely populated places in the world and where 70% of the population are refugees, social distancing measures are near impossible to maintain. Israel’s illegal 13-year closure has left 80% of the population dependent on humanitarian aid, particularly food assistance, and accelerated the de-development of healthcare such that it lacks the essential equipment, drugs, supplies and human resources needed to treat a widespread outbreak of coronavirus.

In the West Bank, Palestinian refugees, particularly Bedouin communities in Area C, continue to have homes, water infrastructure and livelihoods destroyed by the occupying power, and to be denied access to healthcare violations of international law that not only cause extreme hardship for victims but also undermine infection control. Many of these refugees are also at risk of being displaced yet again, amid Israel’s commitment to carry out further annexation. 

In Lebanon, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and poor access to basic services make Palestinian refugee camps very susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases. Meanwhile necessary lockdown measures are exacerbating high rates of poverty and unemployment. As one refugee has expressed to MAP: “People say that if they don’t die from the disease, they will soon die from hunger.” 

Across all areas where MAP works, high levels of chronic malnutrition (stunting), poorly managed noncommunicable diseases, and pre-existing high rates of respiratory illness put many people at particular risk of complications from Covid-19. 

In this bleak scene, international aid and local action has helped to keep coronavirus at bay and case numbers low in all three areas. MAP has been at the heart of this response, prioritising infection control and the protection of health workers as they battle the disease.

Support MAP's COVID-19 emergency response

Since the beginning of the pandemic, MAP has provided to Gaza 430 hygiene kits, 4,552L of disinfectant alcohol gel, and 2,000 Protective Personal Equipment (PPE) suits, 10,500 sterile gowns, 84,000 face masks, 65 eye protection glasses and 500,000 latex gloves. In the West Bank we have delivered 204 PPE kits for health workers to the Ministry of Health. In Lebanon MAP has provided 287 PPE kits to five Palestine Red Crescent Society Hospitals and procured face masks, antiseptic lotions, and gloves so our community midwives can safely conduct individual health education sessions. We have also distributed 28 bottles of disinfectant alcohol gel and 320 bars of soap donated by UNICEF to our partners' community centres.

These infection control and hygiene measures have helped prevent widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 that would inevitably overwhelm Palestinians’ healthcare services. But with the crisis predicted to last for many months, such interventions will need to be sustained to avert disaster. Meanwhile, lockdown measures are already having knock-on effects for Palestinians’ livelihoods, food security, and access to other vital health services.

The coronavirus pandemic threatens another catastrophe for the Palestinian people, one which is avoidable with international support. MAP continues to stand with Palestinian refugees enduring the ongoing legacy of the Nakba, and are committed to maintaining our support for as long as it is needed. We also call on the international community to play their part, by continuing to fund coronavirus prevention, healthcare capacity building, livelihood support and food assistance for the duration of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, and even more critically, the Nakba anniversary should prompt a redoubling of efforts to address the myriad injustices, committed with impunity, that are the root causes of Palestinians’ particular vulnerabilities to this disease.

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