A World Health Organization official who recently returned from the Gaza Strip said on Wednesday the health care system is rapidly deteriorating, and more staff, supplies and access are urgently needed.
“I’ve seen the health care system collapsing before my eyes,” Sean Casey, WHO Health Emergency Officer, told reporters at the United Nations.
Casey spent five weeks in Gaza, starting in early December, and he met with medical professionals and patients across the territory.
“I saw patients in hospitals every day with severe burns, with open fractures, waiting hours or days for care, and they would often ask me for food and water,” he said.
Casey noted a cease-fire is the most critical need, but access, the ability to move people and relief supplies safely and quickly within Gaza, also would help ease suffering.
Before Hamas’ October 7 terror attack inside Israel that triggered the war, Gaza had a robust health care system with 36 hospitals and some 25,000 doctors, nurses and specialists. Now, the WHO says, only about 15 hospitals are partially functioning, some just barely, making it difficult to assist the more than 50,000 injured people.
Casey said there is a shortage of supplies but also of staff, many of whom are displaced and struggling to survive and care for their own families.
“There are unbelievably brave health workers across Gaza who are staying and taking care of people because there is no one else to do it,” he said. “Many more would return to work if they had a safe way to do so and if they had a place to live and care for their families.”
Casey was in Gaza to see how to bring in more international medical teams to help cope with the staggering needs.
He said getting supplies to northern Gaza is especially challenging. During the five weeks he was there, his team was unable to deliver supplies to the largest hospital in the north, al-Shifa, for 12 consecutive days.
At Al-Ahli hospital, also in the north, Casey said the situation was grim.
“I saw patients who were lying on church pews, basically waiting to die in a hospital that had no fuel, no power, no water, very little in the way of medical supplies and only a handful of staff remaining to take care of them.”
Israel has accused Hamas of stealing relief supplies, but Casey said he had not seen evidence of that during his hospital visits.
“I have no evidence of supplies that have been delivered to hospitals going anywhere except to those hospitals,” he said. “I have seen them used immediately; I’ve seen the boxes opened, so that specific drugs can be accessed.”
Dr. Seema Jilani, International Rescue Committee senior technical adviser for emergency health, returned recently from a two-week mission to Gaza with five British doctors.
A pediatrician who has worked in several conflict and post-conflict countries, Jilani said what she saw in Gaza was the most extreme situation she has experienced in her career.
In a briefing with reporters, she said she treated scores of children at Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza. She lacked pediatric supplies, including morphine and chest tubes.
During her first few hours at the hospital, she treated a 1-year-old boy who had both his right arm and leg blown off.
“I treated him while he lay on the ground because there were no stretchers available, because the hospital had become a de facto shelter with hundreds if not thousands of people pouring in seeking safe shelter and a safe space,” Jilani said.
She said Palestinian doctors and nurses worked shifts at the hospital during the day and then searched for food and shelter for their families at night.
The U.N. secretary-general recently appointed a special humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza. Sigrid Kaag visited Gaza briefly on Wednesday, where a U.N. spokesperson said she observed the logistical operations. She was also on the Egyptian side of the border at the humanitarian staging area at Al Arish, not far from the Rafah border crossing.
In Davos, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told business leaders that an immediate humanitarian cease-fire is needed in Gaza, followed by a process that leads to sustained peace for Israelis and Palestinians, based on a two-state solution.
“This is the only way to stem the suffering and prevent a spillover that could send the entire region up in flames,” he said.
Israel put Hamas-controlled Gaza under a total blockade following Hamas’ shock attack in southern Israel on October 7, which killed some 1,200 people. The United States- and European Union-designated terror group also abducted around 240 Israeli and foreign hostages to Gaza. Just over a hundred were released during a weeklong pause in late November.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reports more than 24,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, most of them women and children.