Aid activists say coronavirus poses deadly danger for people fleeing war in Idlib

Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond,” to an epidemic, said WHO spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson.
Sunday 22/03/2020
Fears mounting. A Syrian man distributes face masks during at a camp for displaced people in north-western Syria's Idlib province. (AFP)
Fears mounting. A Syrian man distributes face masks during at a camp for displaced people in north-western Syria's Idlib province. (AFP)

Aid activists said a possible outbreak of the new coronavirus in the embattled Syrian province of Idlib could become a deadly threat to millions of people in the region.

Approximately 3 million people live in Idlib, the last stronghold of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad after nine years of war. The United Nations said nearly 1 million internally displaced people (IDPs) are seeking shelter along the closed border with Turkey in camps that lack basic facilities, such as toilets and showers.

“The minute the virus reaches the camps, there is no way to stop it,” Fadi al-Dairi, regional coordinator for Syria at the British NGO Hand in Hand for Aid and Development, said by telephone.

Idlib, in north-western Syria, has been subject to months of intense bombardment by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia. The Syrian offensive was halted March 6 by a ceasefire negotiated between Russia and Turkey. Ankara has deployed thousands of troops in the enclave, operating alongside its Syrian opposition allies.

The military situation remains volatile despite the truce. Turkey said two of its soldiers in Idlib were killed in a rocket attack by “some radical groups.”

“IDPs living in overcrowded areas without sanitation are at high risk,” the Syrian American Medical Society, an aid organisation, said on Twitter. “There is an urgent need for testing kits in order to respond timely to a potential #coronavirus outbreak in north-west #Syria.”

Syrian officials said there is no coronavirus case in the country, even though all five of its neighbours -- Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan -- have detected the virus on their territory.

Reports said the World Health Organisation (WHO) was yet to start testing people in Syria for coronavirus. Unable to provide services from government-held territory in Syria, the WHO provides cross-border assistance to rebel-held Idlib via Turkey.

Aid organisations in Idlib said they were preparing for an outbreak. One of the groups, the Violet Organisation, said it disinfected several hospitals in Idlib, built quarantine tents and trained staff to deal with infections.

Recent fighting has damaged Idlib’s medical infrastructure, already devastated by the war, making any outbreak even more serious. Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond” to an epidemic, WHO spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson told Agence France-Presse.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had talks via video link with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to address the situation in Syria and the new refugee crisis between Turkey and the European Union, triggered by Erdogan’s decision in late February to open Turkey’s borders for migrants wishing to cross to neighbouring EU member Greece.

Speaking after the conference, Merkel said Germany was ready to spend $137 million for humanitarian aid in Idlib.

Dairi said there was little Europe could do to address the danger posed by coronavirus in Idlib but he suggested the European Union might be able to send more testing equipment to the province.

Hisham Dirani, co-founder and CEO of the Turkey-based aid group Binaa, said dire conditions in the camps created a fertile breeding ground for the virus.

“So far we have no cases” of coronavirus in the Idlib camps, Dirani said by telephone, “but it is an optimum environment for the virus -- a hundred people are sharing one toilet.”

“If a case occurs, how could aid organisations deal with that?” he asked. “There are only 50 ventilators in the whole of Idlib.”

Syrian authorities announced measures aimed at preventing the virus from reaching the war-torn country, including school closures and a ban on smoking shisha in cafes, state media reported.

Damascus ordered the closure of all public and private schools, universities and technical institutes until April 2, the official SANA news agency reported. The government reduced civil servant staffing 60%, slashed working hours and suspended the use of fingerprint scanners for public employees for a month, SANA said.

Two quarantine centres are to be established in each of the country’s provinces, the government said. There were no details about how the plan could be implemented in Idlib, a region effectively split into a government-held area in the south and rebel territory in the north.