Coronavirus: Doctor warns of ‘incoming disaster’ in Gaza

(ALJAZEERA) – For years, Dr Tarek Loubani has been guided by a simple principle: All patients, no matter where they live, should have equal access to high-quality healthcare. But it is obvious to the Palestinian-Canadian emergency room doctor that this ideal is not yet a reality.

“I practised in Canada, and I practised in Gaza, and I could see that my patients in Gaza weren’t receiving the same care,” he told Al Jazeera this week, as the blockaded Palestinian territory confirmed its first two cases of the novel coronavirus.

The global coronavirus pandemic has thrust stark global disparities in access to healthcare and medical equipment into the spotlight, as some countries are ravaged while others are succeeding so far in staving off a crisis.

The Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places in the world, is expected to be among the hardest-hit areas, as experts fear chronic shortages and an already strained healthcare system will exacerbate the spread of the virus.

Medical workers in Gaza are preparing for the worst, said Loubani, who spent two weeks working there last month. “People were so terrified because they knew that they were living in a powder keg,” he said. “And even these two cases represent such an incoming disaster.”

3D printing supplies

An emergency room physician in the Canadian province of Ontario, Loubani has worked with colleagues in Gaza to address some of the problems plaguing the healthcare system for several years.

In 2015, he raised more than 300,000 Canadian dollars ($206,000) to erect solar panels atop a handful of hospitals across the Palestinian territory and provide a more consistent supply of electricity amid frequent power cuts. He also founded the Glia Project, an open-source charity that produces 3D-printed medical equipment at a low cost. The group has helped deploy 3D-printed stethoscopes and tourniquets in Gaza.

For COVID-19, Glia has shared production plans for medical face shields, which front-line medical workers need when they are treating patients.

The face shields, which are being produced for use in Canadian facilities amid concerns that supplies may run out, are made with mylar and elastic, and they cost $7 per unit to produce. They are also reusable, Loubani said.

He said the equipment would help plug a gap in Canada, which is otherwise well-equipped to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and where the government has mobilised various industries to manufacture supplies. But Loubani conceded that face masks alone would not drastically change the reality of COVID-19 in Gaza.

“Face shields in Canada are great because that’s the thing that’s missing. But in Gaza, it’s not the thing that’s missing. It’s like a bridge, but there’s no ends on either side of this bridge.”