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“We Don’t Have the Capacity to Treat”: Palestinian-Canadian Doctor Says Israel Must Lift Gaza Siege

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As fears continue to grow about what a rampant outbreak of the coronavirus might do to the occupied Palestinian territory, already crippled by years of Israeli sanctions, we get an update from Dr. Tarek Loubani, Palestinian-Canadian doctor and emergency physician who volunteers in the Gaza Strip and returned from a trip there last month. “Testing is severely limited,” he says. “There have been fewer tests in Gaza so far throughout the entire pandemic than there were in South Korea yesterday.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re turning now to Gaza, where fears continue to grow about what a rampant outbreak of the coronavirus might do to the occupied Palestinian territory, already crippled by years of Israeli sanctions. The Gaza Strip thus far has only reported 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but this week the Israeli army halted testing there after just two days of administering tests.

On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross donated medical equipment to Gaza hospitals, but its weak medical system remains ill-equipped to serve an influx of patients. The Red Cross reports Gaza has just 93 ventilators for a population of more than 2 million Palestinians. This is Gaza Health Ministry official Abdullatif Alhaj.

ABDULLATIF ALHAJ: Facing this COVID-19 as a pandemic, Gaza is facing this pandemic with its fragile and overstretched health system due to lots of factors, like the long years of closure and siege, and the poverty and loss of — I mean, shortage of many resources.

AMY GOODMAN: Crowded refugee camps in the Occupied Territories are particularly at risk. This is Um-Shady, a Palestinian woman living at a refugee camp in Gaza with her family, speaking to the BBC.

UM-SHADY: [translated] We know that here in Gaza there are no resources to fight this virus. We’re all in God’s hands here. … People don’t have enough to eat, and there is no work. Had there been any means to work, we would have helped ourselves. But we can’t go out there. I borrowed money to buy food for this week. But next week, I might not be able to borrow anything to feed these kids.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Dr. Tarek Loubani, Palestinian-Canadian doctor, emergency room physician, based in London, Ontario, Canada. He volunteers in the Gaza Strip, returned from a trip there last month. Dr. Loubani recently wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post headlined “Gaza is an open-air prison. As covid-19 spreads, it’s time to lift the siege.”

Dr. Loubani, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Talk about the situation there, before we talk about what’s happening in Canada, as you are an emergency room doctor. What’s happening in Gaza?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: In the Gaza Strip right now, we see a situation in which, very clearly, we’re not able to detect the active cases that are happening and are definitely circulating within the Gaza Strip. Testing is severely limited. There are fewer — there have been fewer tests in Gaza so far throughout the entire pandemic than there were in South Korea yesterday. And so we know that we don’t see all of the cases that exist. We know that we don’t have the capacity to treat. And we know that these cases are not just circulating, but are also about to spike in terms of their severity and consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the latest news that we have out of Gaza. But first I want to go to the world-renowned linguist, political dissident Noam Chomsky. I just had a chance to speak with him a week or two ago from his home, where he’s sheltering at home in Tucson, Arizona, and asked him what the coronavirus pandemic means for Gaza.

NOAM CHOMSKY: International institutions have pointed out that by 2020 — that’s now — Gaza will probably become barely livable. About 95% of the water is totally polluted. The place is a disaster. And Trump has made sure that it will get worse. He withdrew funding from the support systems for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank — UNRWA, killed the funding; Palestinian hospitals, killed the funding. And he had a reason. They weren’t praising him enough. They weren’t respectful of the god, so, therefore, we’ll strangle them, even when they’re barely surviving under a harsh and brutal regime.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could expand on what Professor Chomsky is saying, Dr. Tarek Loubani? And, I mean, you have direct experience in Gaza, have been there a number of times. In fact, you were shot by the Israeli military when you were there, as you were there as a medic helping people in Gaza involved with a nonviolent protest, who were being gunned down.

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: The situation in Gaza has been terrible for years. I’ve been going there for about a decade. And one of the things that always shocked me is that each trip I think to myself, “This cannot possibly get worse,” and then, each trip, it does. And this was truly one of the worst visits that I had had.

You know, we had some improvement in electricity. We were up to five or six hours a day of electricity, and people thought, “Wow! That’s so wonderful!” But in the hospitals, all of our supplies were out, in general, even without anything. We barely have enough gloves to proceed day to day. For example, usually I would carry a pair of gloves in my pocket and then only put one when I treat a patient, so that I would spare the other one, and then, with my bare hand, would try to touch maybe areas that weren’t as contaminated or sensitive.

It’s really a situation in which something like the coronavirus is bound to keep spreading, and a situation where I understand that there are lots of geopolitical factors that are at play here. And I just think that what we need right now, if Palestine is this open-air prison, or if Gaza is this open-air prison, is just a moment’s parole. This situation is so severe and so dire that it’s not only going to impact on the Gazans — though I think that they should be the main consideration — but it’s also going to impact on everybody around. The virus does not care about the geopolitics. It will go to Egypt. It will go to Jordan. It will go to Israel. And it will affect all of those populations and make it impossible for them to control their COVID situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to happen there, Dr. Loubani?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Absolutely the first thing that has to happen is an unrestricted permission for all medical aid, medical supplies and medical personnel to enter. That is number one. It must happen, effective immediately. And we have all, within the medical community, not been requesting or demanding that the Israelis do this; we’ve been begging that the Israelis do this. This is not a situation, I think, in which there can be much pride or ego about it. This is a situation of absolute catastrophe. And the Israelis really do, in a big way, hold the keys here. And so, that’s why so many of us are imploring them to just stop for a moment with the severity of the siege. And then, you know what? We can go back to status quo once this disaster is addressed.

The second thing, of course, is we can’t treat what we can’t see. And so we need those tests to resume immediately, even if there isn’t an unrestricted lifting of the siege for medical personnel and medical equipment. At the very least, the tests have to start flowing.

And then, thirdly, of course, one of the disasters that’s happening right now, there are about 2,000 people in quarantine, but the people who are trying to support them in quarantine don’t have any PPE. And so, the first two cases were people who had come from outside, but the next 15 cases were people who had been in contact with those people, in Gaza. It’s slightly different in the West Bank. And so we need, really, personal protective equipment. We’re trying, the Gazans are trying, and people in the West Bank are trying to make their own, as they are elsewhere. But it’s impossible to do that under the current conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we only have a few minutes, but I wanted to go where you are right now, to Canada. You’re based in London, Ontario. You’re a Canadian doctor, emergency room physician. Can you talk about how Canada has approached this, how it compares to the United States — the massive lack of testing and PPE, personal protective gear, for the doctors, the nurses, the custodian, the cleaning staff at all of these hospitals? What has it been like in Canada?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: Obviously, the situation in Canada is much better than the United States. And I think we can really chalk that up to a couple of factors. One of them is the fact that we have for medical care system that will care for anybody, under any condition, without payment at the point of care. Of course we pay for our medical system, but we don’t do it when we show up to the hospital. Nobody asks for a credit card or a bill. And if people aren’t able to pay who aren’t covered under the health system, then we take a risk-based approach, and, obviously, for public health, everything is covered.

The other big aspect here is that people, of course, are worried about poverty. Canada is no panacea, but they are not as worried about poverty, because there are some social safety nets. And so, the real pillars of the response are things like making sure that everybody can access healthcare — well, we have that in Canada; making sure that everybody can stay away from work and not be worried about ending up on the streets — well, it’s not as good as we want it, but we have that, in large part, in Canada. Canada has many problems, of course, but when we look to our neighbors in the south, it’s obvious that the way in which Canada has set up its system and guaranteed care has reduced the caseload tremendously and is giving us a fighting chance.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you just had one of the worst massacres in Canadian history, 22 people dead, it looks like, at this count, in Nova Scotia. You have this 51-year-old man who posed as a police officer. Apparently, AP is reporting he had just had a fight with his girlfriend. She survived this attack. But so often these mass shootings are related to domestic violence and abuse of women. Now Prime Minister Trudeau is talking about tightening gun rules in Canada. If you could just, overall, comment on what this has meant for Canada? There will be a news conference today, where they’ll be releasing the latest information around this?

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: I’m from the east coast of Canada and still have family there, so this did hit close to home for me. I think, as an emergency physician, we see the impacts of gunshot wounds, and we see the impacts of domestic violence, as well. And, of course, in domestic violence situations, having the availability of a gun is a surefire ingredient in the recipe for disaster. And so, of course, as an emergency physician, I applaud the Canadian government for doing what they can to improve gun control regulations. I don’t know enough about the situation in Nova Scotia to comment very intelligently, but, in general, with what we see with gun-related violence, it’s obvious that even though Canada, again, does a better job than the United States with gun control, there’s still some way to go. And Canadian doctors have called for this in a concerted way over the past few years.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Tarek Loubani, we want to thank you for being with us, Palestinian-Canadian doctor, emergency room physician, based in London, Ontario, Canada. We’ll link to your piece in The Washington Post on what’s happening in Gaza.

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