A destroyed health center after the cease-fire between Israel and Gaza militants in the Gaza Strip. Photo by: Mahmoud Issa / SOPA Images / Sipa via Reuters Connect

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A U.N. official has raised concerns of a potential outbreak of coronavirus infections in Gaza, and called on the international community to support COVID-19 vaccinations for Palestinians including refugees.

“Gaza just experienced the highest COVID-19 outbreak in April 2021, with 31,180 new cases. We are deeply concerned about the possible flareup of … COVID-19 in the near future,” said Dr. Akihiro Seita, director of health at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Vaccination coverage remains “very low” in the Palestinian territories, from 5% to 10% of the population, according to the UNRWA official.

The concerns follow the recent Israel-Palestinian conflict that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and damage to health facilities, including the only COVID-19 testing lab in Gaza. A cease-fire has since been reached by both parties to the conflict, but officials said the damage is so extensive and it could take years to rebuild infrastructure.

“If the bombing stops, and if we have at least the opportunity to have easy access to distribute vaccines, then I think in that case, we wouldn't even need a resolution.”

— Representative from Palestine, 74th World Health Assembly

“We are happy with the declaration of a ceasefire. However, we are hopeful that this ceasefire will be sustained, because [the] situation has become intolerable,” said Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, World Health Organization regional director for the eastern Mediterranean, during a session on Wednesday at the 74th World Health Assembly.

But a draft decision adopted by the World Health Assembly, in a vote of 83-14, requesting the WHO director-general to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines in the territories as well as the respect and protection of the wounded population, including health and humanitarian aid workers, received pushback. Israel and several member states argued the decision signifies the continued politicization of the World Health Assembly and WHO.

“By adopting this decision, the other member states have chosen to continue to allow the Syrians to whitewash their own abhorrent crimes, they've chosen to continue to allow the Palestinians to hijack this professional forum and turn it into another place to pursue political goals, and they've chosen to adopt a decision that has nothing, and is disconnected from reality,” said the representative from Israel.

The Netherlands, which voted against the resolution, questioned text in the adopted resolution that references the bombing in the Palestinian territories.

Humanitarian relief in Gaza reaching a 'critical point,' UN rep says

While the Israel and Hamas conflict has halted all development work in Gaza, unreliable border crossings and security risks are also threatening the steady continuation of humanitarian work.

The resolution asks the WHO chief to assess, together with other U.N. agencies, “the extent and nature of psychiatric morbidity, and other forms of mental health problems, resulting from protracted aerial and other forms of bombing among the population, particularly children and adolescents” in the territories.

The Netherlands also questioned the resolution ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, arguing such access is already provided by Israel. The member state expressed concerns on the impact of the recent conflict on an already overburdened health system in Gaza, and the reported obstruction of the delivery of health care, but does not think a resolution is needed for WHO to continue doing its work in the territories.

But the representative from Palestine defended the resolution arguing that “if the bombing stops, and if we have at least the opportunity to have easy access to distribute vaccines, then I think in that case, we wouldn't even need a resolution.”

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.