While Israel was lauded for its vaccination campaign, millions of Palestine refugees were sidelined


WASHINGTON (WDVM) — Israel launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign in mid-December. By March 8, over 40% of Israel’s population had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but the nearly 5 million Palestine refugees living in Gaza and the West Bank were sidelined for vaccines until February. 

On February 17, the Associated Press reported the Palestinian Authority sent the first shipment of coronavirus vaccines — just 2,000 doses — to the Gaza Strip. 22,000 doses were delivered on February 22 for former health ministers and several medical workers. By that time, Gaza’s health authorities had confirmed over 54,000 coronavirus infections and 543 deaths. 

Dr. Yousef Shahin says the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) created a task force for COVID-19 response last March. Shahin is UNRWA’s chief of Disease Prevention and Control. The UN agency spent the last year mitigating the spread of the virus and treating the sick, and now it’s assisting in vaccinations. 

This month, the Palestinian Authority acquired enough doses for only 6,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza. Shahin says Gaza also received 60,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V from the United Arab Emirates. He hopes for more donations from other countries. 

“COVAX is expecting another 160,000 to 170,000 vaccines from AstraZeneca in batches through the end of May, although this has been delayed so we’re not completely sure, and another 100,000 of Sinopharm from the Chinese,” said Mara Kronenfeld, executive director of UNRWA USA. 

UNRWA serves 5.7 million Palestine refugees across five operation sites (and 141 health centers) in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Kronenfeld says UNRWA treats an average of 280,000 patients a year for issues unrelated to COVID-19. 

Shahin says UNRWA serves 77% of the Gaza population. One-fifth of the people its healthcare workers screen there require mental health treatment. “I believe the COVID-19 is adding more and more obstacles to that because of the lockdowns, the restrictions, and the disease itself,” he said. 

“Gaza is the highest density area in the world so people there can contract the disease very easily,” Shahin said. “Around 100,000 people are registered as having diabetes or hypertension, in addition to obesity and other high risk factors.”

While UNRWA’s staff of 2,700 are on the ground, UNRWA USA is advocating for Palestine refugees stateside. “Especially at this moment when UNRWA has been facing a dire budget shortfall we really rely on the compassion and understanding of Americans to support when they can,” Kronenfeld said.

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