JERUSALEM — Just as a graduation for 400 students was breaking up on Monday night in the blockaded Gaza Strip, a university official rushed to the stage of the brightly lit soccer stadium and took the microphone to address the crowd of Palestinian families, few wearing masks.
The authorities had just reported four new cases of Covid-19 in the territory, a place that had yet to report a single case of community spread. Every known patient had contracted the virus while traveling elsewhere — but these four had not.
“We ask you not to spend additional time here,” pleaded the official, Said al-Namrouti, urging people who gathered for the Islamic University’s education college graduation to go home immediately. “There’s an exceptional situation outside the stadium related to the coronavirus.”
The discovery of the first four cases of community transmission of the virus deep inside Gaza set off an epidemiological investigation into the outbreak’s source, and prompted Hamas, the militant group that governs the territory, to impose a 48-hour curfew, a first step in the effort to control the outbreak.
But it has also raised fears that the pandemic could spread quickly in the densely populated enclave, exacerbating the already dire economic situation confronting its nearly two million residents. On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported two new cases of local transmission, which it said were not linked to the first four.
Experts warned that Gaza’s health sector, already devastated by years of war and conflict, lacked the resources to deal with a widespread outbreak.
Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the World Health Organization’s mission, said Gaza’s medical institutions have only about 100 adult ventilators, most of which were already in use, and noted that authorities were in need of more test kits.
“For years, the situation has been going from bad to worse,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City. “If we need to shut down for several weeks, I’m worried we could be heading for a disaster.”
Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza have contributed to the devastation of its economy, with poverty widespread and unemployment around 45 percent. Israel says the restrictions are intended to prevent Hamas and other militant groups from gaining access to weapons or the means to build them.
On Tuesday, the effects of the new curfew were visible: Mosques, restaurants, cafes, wedding halls and other places were shut. Beaches were practically empty.
Feras al-Hamami, a vendor who usually earns less than $9 daily, said authorities prevented him from selling long skinny rolls of bread from his portable cart.
“I live on what I make every day,” said Mr. Hamami, 21, the sole provider for his wife and himself. “If I don’t work, I don’t have money for food.”
Sobhi al-Khazendar, a legal adviser at a gas company in Gaza City, said the virus worried him even more than violent conflicts between Israel and militant groups in the territory.
“When there’s a war, I usually know where it’s safe to go,” said Mr. Khazendar, 27. “The virus is different. It can be anywhere and everywhere. I have no idea how I can avoid it.”
While security forces limited movement throughout the territory by setting up checkpoints, they permitted residents outside the Maghazi refugee camp, where the first four infected people live, to leave their homes only for “absolutely necessary matters” like purchasing medication and food, said Salama Maroof, the head of the Hamas-run government media office.
The four infected people are members of the same family, Mr. Maroof said.
The restrictions on movement, however, were not universally observed. In Shejaiya, a neighborhood in the eastern part of Gaza City, hundreds marched through the streets in a funeral procession for four Islamic Jihad fighters who died in an explosion on Monday. On side streets, encouraged by Gaza’s frequent power outages, people relaxed near their homes and went for short walks.
Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Hamas-operated Health Ministry, said at a news conference that authorities had tested the four people from the Maghazi camp after learning they had been in contact with a relative who tested positive at a hospital in East Jerusalem.
He didn’t offer an explanation as to how the virus entered the territory, but said contact tracing continued. Until Monday, authorities had found infections only at quarantine facilities, where all returning travelers were required to isolate for three weeks and pass two tests before being permitted to leave.
The discovery of the local cases on Monday came as tensions between Israel and Hamas have sharply risen. Palestinians in Gaza have launched flaming and explosive-laden balloons as well as a number of rockets into Israeli territory.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 24, 2020
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
- Employers have to provide a safe workplace with policies that protect everyone equally. And if one of your co-workers tests positive for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has said that employers should tell their employees — without giving you the sick employee’s name — that they may have been exposed to the virus.
Israel has responded by blocking the entry of all goods into Gaza except for “essential and humanitarian equipment.” The new restrictions apply to fuel, worsening power outages.
Mr. Abusada, the political scientist, said he thought the sudden emergence of the pandemic in central Gaza would at least postpone a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas.
“The focus right now is on containing the virus,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean an escalation won’t take place later.”
Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for Hamas, said the militant group wanted the Israelis to follow through on a number of commitments he said they made in indirect negotiations.
“We aren’t seeking an escalation, but the Israeli side needs to stop procrastinating in fulfilling its obligations,” he said. “The virus won’t prevent us from continuing to make our demands.”
Mr. Qassem said Hamas was demanding Israel take action to improve Gaza’s electricity infrastructure, permit the development of an industrial zone and allow the export of more goods and the import of “dual-use” items — products that Israel says can be used for both civilian and military purposes — among other measures. The prime minister’s office declined to comment on Mr. Qassem’s remarks.
Mr. Rockenschaub, of the World Health Organization, said that it was possible to contain the virus in Gaza, but it would require intensive contact tracing. “This is far from being over, but I think there’s still a chance to avoid a wide-scale outbreak,” he said.
Mr. Khazendar said he found out about cases at the Maghazi camp while he was enjoying a coffee with friends at a coffee shop on the beach.
“Up until yesterday, we felt like we were living in another world, without the virus. We were acting like it didn’t exist,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been so complacent, but all I can hope for now is that God protects us.”
Adam Rasgon reported from Jerusalem, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.