GAZA CITY: Authorities in Gaza confirmed the first two cases of novel coronavirus on Sunday (Mar 22), identifying the individuals as Palestinians who had travelled to Pakistan and were held in quarantine on their return.
Gaza's health ministry said in a statement that "two citizens tested positive (for COVID-19), after they returned from Pakistan" on Thursday.
It stressed that neither person left the quarantine facility near the Egyptian border and did not mix with the wider population.
Health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra said the sick were two men, aged 30 and 40, who were stable condition.
Israel has enforced a blockade on Gaza since 2007, when the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the coastal strip.
Experts have warned that an epidemic in Gaza would likely be disastrous, given the high poverty rates, densely-packed population and weak health system.
Movement in and out of the territory - severely restricted by Israel and Egypt before the pandemic - has tightened in response to coronavirus.
Authorities in Gaza have said that more than 2,700 Palestinians are in home-isolation, mostly people who had returned from Egypt.
'DISASTER OF GIGANTIC PROPORTIONS'
The head of the World Health Organization's Palestinian office, Gerald Rockenschaub, told AFP this week that Israeli restrictions and political tensions have caused Gaza's health facilities to deteriorate over the past decade.
Gaza has only 60 intensive care (ICU) beds for its two million people and not all are operational due to staff shortages, he said.
In response to the pandemic, Israel has announced an increased supply of medical equipment to Gaza, including hundreds of COVID-19 test kits transferred this week.
Hamas authorities are also working to build up to 1,000 new isolation rooms near the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
The Gaza director of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, Matthias Schmale, told AFP this week that it would be "an illusion to think you can manage (an epidemic) in a closed-off space like this."
"Everything I am hearing is if the outbreak reaches the magnitude where you need more than 60 ICU beds to treat, it will become increasingly difficult and could well turn into a disaster of gigantic proportions," he said.
Palestinians suffering from cancer and other serious diseases are currently allowed to leave Gaza through Israel for treatment inside the Jewish state or in the occupied West Bank.
It is not yet clear if Israel, which has imposed tight restrictions on its own population in response to the pandemic, will allow seriously ill coronavirus patients to be transferred from the Strip.