A healthcare worker checks the temperature of a woman in Gaza City.  (Photo: Mohammed Salem / Reuters)Palestinians are being deprived of COVID-19 vaccines in the midst of a severe health crisis, especially in Israeli occupied territories.

Ramallah.- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a coronavirus vaccine jab on December 19, kicking off a national roll-out that has made Israel the world’s COVID-19 vaccination drive leader. But while Israel’s vaccination campaign even includes Jewish settlers living deep inside the illegally occupied West Bank, it will exclude the nearly five million Palestinians living under occupation there or in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

They will have to wait for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers parts of the West Bank under interim peace agreements signed in the 1990s, to provide the jabs.

The Palestinian health ministry expects the first batches of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in the occupied West Bank and Gaza at the beginning of March, more than two months after Israel began its roll-out.

“We have just signed a deal with AstraZeneca to get two million doses,” May al-Kaila, the Palestinian health minister, told Al Jazeera. The two million doses from Oxford-AstraZeneca would only be enough to inoculate one million people.

The vaccination is going to be free of charge and voluntary. Each dose will cost the PA about $5, making the deal worth about $10 million.

More than 148,100 Palestinians have so far tested positive for coronavirus, and more than 1,610 COVID-19 related deaths have been reported in the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the pandemic.

But with infections surging, many Palestinians living in the occupied territories cannot afford to wait until March. New daily infections in the West Bank and Gaza have consistently surpassed 1,000 in the past month. In the second half of December, the number of daily detected cases averaged almost 1,500 – a threefold increase from July 2020.

The PA is also expecting to receive vaccines from COVAX - a global collaboration of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and France - which has pledged to provide COVID-19 vaccines to 92 “low and middle income” countries in response to the pandemic.

“COVAX is going to supply us with 20 percent of our vaccine requirements in increments,” Yaser Bouzieh, a senior official at the Palestinian health ministry, told Al Jazeera. COVAX shipments are also expected in early March.

Though cash-strapped and competing for access with many countries, the Palestinian health ministry said it has also reached out to six vaccine manufacturers: Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, the Russian Sputnik V, Johnson & Johnson, and China’s Sinovac.

The health ministry requested the vaccine from all six but only received a response from AstraZeneca. “We are a poor country but we are trying to protect people by all means,” al-Kaila said.

At the moment, health officials expect to vaccinate about two million Palestinians by May. Front-line workers and senior citizens will be a priority. According to the Ministry of Health, nearly 40 percent of the Palestinian population is below 18. This large youth demographic should provide some relief to health officials since younger people are much less likely to suffer severely from COVID-19.

But if the vaccines are delayed, it would mean more deaths as well as more lockdowns and economic pain. The pandemic has brought the economy to a near standstill and put an already vulnerable health system under strain. Numerous general and partial lockdowns have been imposed in the West Bank and Gaza since March of last year. (RHC)