Gaza coronavirus lockdown extended by 72 hours after infections spread

Slideshow ( 5 images )

GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza will remain in lockdown at least until Sunday, health officials said on Wednesday after reporting two deaths and 26 COVID-19 cases in the first public outbreak of the coronavirus in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

As of two days ago, when the first four cases were discovered in a refugee camp in the 360 square-kilometre (140 square-mile) territory, and a 48-hour lockdown was imposed, there had been no infections outside border quarantine facilities for new arrivals.

But by late on Wednesday, health officials said 26 people in several locations had tested positive for COVID-19 and two patients had died - a sign the world pandemic had penetrated Gaza’s forced isolation.

The 40-kilometre (24-mile)-long territory run by Hamas Islamists is sealed off from the outside world by Israeli walls, watchtowers and gunboats along 90% of its border and coastline, and by Egypt along a narrow strip to the south.

Both countries impose tight restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza, citing security concerns over Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.

The new infections added to concerns among local and international health organizations about Gaza’s potentially disastrous combination of poverty, densely populated refugee camps and limited hospital capacity.

Mosques, schools and most businesses have been ordered closed. Authorities have instructed Gazans to stay at home and wear masks if they need to shop for essentials.

Ignacio Casares Garcia, head of the Gaza Subdelegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said hospitals and health centres in the territory did not have sufficient medical equipment and medication for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

“The Gaza healthcare system would not be able to deal with more than a few dozen coronavirus patients,” he said in a statement, calling for more international assistance.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Richard Pullin