On Aug. 2, several United Nations Agencies, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, issued a joint press release calling attention to an imminent “health disaster” in the Gaza Strip. According to the report, “Gaza’s medical services and facilities are on the verge of collapse.”
This report horrified me, and yet for days all I continued to see in the news was coverage of the political situation, death toll numbers, news of U.N. shelters being shelled — basically, exciting breaking news. The hard facts about the long-term effects of war on infrastructure and health were missing. So I decided to break down the health crisis myself to get a better understanding of the meaning of a “health disaster.”
I reached out to the UNRWA’s Director of Health, Dr. Akihiro Seita, to help me answer the questions that are being ignored by the media. Through email correspondence and a Skype call, Dr. Seita was able to give me a first-hand account of the heath crisis in Gaza.
According to Dr. Seita, due to the overcrowding of shelters and inadequate access to sanitation systems and potable water, there is a high risk for the spread of disease. Additionally, this risk is compounded by the urban density present in Gaza (1.8 million people stretched out over 360 square kilometers prior to the conflict).
The inadequacy of sanitation systems is to be expected. As of Sunday, UNRWA is reporting that it is sheltering 236,918 internally displaced people in 90 schools. According to Dr. Seita, some schools are hosting up to 9,000 people. At a shelter he visited last week, there were about 4,000 refugees sleeping 50 to 70 per room, and they shared severely inadequate sanitation facilities. Though there hasn’t been an outbreak of any serious communicable disease yet, there have been spikes in diarrhea and skin ailments, including lice and scabies.
Other essential resources are also in short supply. While potable water and food are being brought into the region, the provisions may not outlast the violence.There are also major concerns over the availability of medical supplies and faltering access to electricity.
Dr. Seita said that while medical supplies and food are traveling relatively freely from Jordan via Israel and from Jerusalem via the Israel-Gaza border, the process is neither “smooth nor optimal” via Rafah, the Egypt-Gaza border.
He also says that while electricity at UNRWA health centers is consistent because it is being produced by generators, this isn’t the case for outside facilities: the power plant powering much of the region has been bombed, making it difficult to store medicines and power necessary for medical devices.
“What is the use of [stocks of] medicine without safe water for people to drink?” he said. “What is the use of top surgical [supplies] without electricity to operate them?”
He adds that the consumption of medicine in Gaza has increased dramatically. During the ceasefire, the clinics were seeing up to 17,000 patients per day, and hospitals remained tight despite running at full capacity.
Dr. Seita also fears for the long-term mental health of Gaza’s population — especially of Gaza’s youth.
“One major concern is the psychological trauma and PTSD due to the war and destruction of society,” he said. “We had a surge of such conditions in the previous war in 2012, which was, by comparison, much lighter. And thus [we are] very much concerned with the impact of their mental health due to this war.”
Almost 64 percent of Gaza’s population is under the age of 24, with a median age of 18. Add to this the nearly 40-percent unemployment rate (which will certainly rise with the onset of war) and that much of this population has already seen death and violence in 2004 and 2012, and you have a recipe for a long-term mental health catastrophe.
School was also set to begin on Aug. 21. According to Dr. Seita, even if hostilities were to stop, 12 to 20 of the schools would remain as shelters for about 40,000 displaced people (and this number will likely increase).
To try to understand the depth of the problem, I compared the UNRWA’s goals in Gaza to their mission in Syria, which has been delivering aid to Palestinian refugees in the war-torn region for quite some time now. But, Dr. Seita made it clear that we have two completely different situations at hand.
He described Syria as being “chronic” and the Gaza Strip as “acute.” He also explained that the displaced people in Syria have largely been in shelters for more than two years already, and the number of refugees in the region are not as great — 500,000 compared to Gaza’s 1.2 million.
In Syria, the mission is to continue to provide a safe haven for refugees. But the month-long war in the Gaza Strip has sent UNRWA into survival mode. They are addressing larger numbers with several new health challenges and security threats every day. But, eventually this acute health situation may become a chronic one, and UNRWA will have to begin to address the needs of the displaced in the long term.
As the new 72-hour ceasefire, which began Monday night, plays out, we will see what the future holds for the Gazan health disaster. When I asked Dr. Seita what was the most crucial challenge to humanitarian aid that needed to be overcome, he simply stated, “The war should end.”
Thankfully, the cease-fire will allow a small but much-needed timeframe for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid. Unfortunately, a health disaster has already been created; the only hope for the people of Gaza is that the effects can be somewhat minimized through the brokering of peace.
Dana is a graduate of Southern Methodist University where she studied human rights, African studies, and international relations. Currently, Dana is an ESL Instructor and Cultural Orientation Coordinator at the the Kentucky Refugee Ministries. She has lived internationally in both Ghana and South Korea. Throughout university Dana stayed connected to politics and human rights through participation in SMU’s Model United Nations team and Amnesty International. She has volunteered with both women’s and LGBT rights organizations, and continues to be passionate about these causes. Follow her on Twitter@DanaAnneLea.