Spectre of coronavirus hovers over Syria

Analysts warn that Syria’s IDP camps are simply not equipped to handle a major COVID-19 outbreak.
Sunday 05/04/2020
Syrians wearing face masks in front of posters informing about the novel coronavirus, in the capital Damascus, April 1. (AFP)
New threat. Syrians wearing face masks in front of posters informing about the novel coronavirus, in the capital Damascus, April 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - The worst fears of aid agencies and international organisations appear to be coming true, with the first cases of coronavirus being reported in Syria.

 Confirmed deaths from the novel coronavirus remain relatively low. According to the government in Damascus, recorded instances of the virus among Syria’s shifting population remain equally limited. However, with the desperate conditions that permeate the sprawling camps across Syria’s north, the implications of a large-scale coronavirus outbreak are staggering.

According to the United Nations, the cases recorded so far represent just“the tip of the iceberg,” Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), told the Security Council on March 30.

“All efforts to prevent, detect and respond to Covid-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system,” Lowcock told the UN Security Council, adding that the country remained unprepared for the full impact of the virus, with only half its healthcare systems functional at the end of 2019.

Nine years of civil war have left Syria especially vulnerable to the spread of the disease. Its pre-war population of 21 million has been decimated by the spread of conflict. Currently, around half the population has been forced to flee their homes, with more than 11 million people inside Syria requiring humanitarian assistance, including nearly 5 million children.

Within the country’s north, the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are overflowing, with some families resorting to having to sleep outdoors with only mats and the shelter of trees to protect them from this year’s freezing winter.

Social distancing of the kind practiced elsewhere as a defence against the virus’s spread remains a distant possibility for families forced to sleep together in crowded tents in the overcrowded camps across Syria’s north.

Exacerbating the risks to the wider population are the large numbers of unchecked militia fighters and civilians entering and leaving the country unmonitored from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon where the virus is known to be prevalent.

Aid agencies are doing what they can. Organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been working on the ground in northern Syria for some time. On April 2, while acknowledging the grim circumstances being played out in north-west Syria, MSF committed to maintaining aid operations within the region. MSF has previously suspended its activities in north-east Syria due to the area’s instability.

“WWe are used to treating burn patients, so we have o2 concentrators for patients and equipped ambulances but more are required to answer COVID-19 needs.,” Hakim Khaldi, MSF’s head of mission for Syria said. He added from Beirut: “However, basic materials such as soap are difficult to get. We are currently having to buy it in areas such as Afrin, (around 40 miles away) and ship it in.”

Other basic materials have also become scarce. “We used to get medical supplies and disinfectants through the border from Turkey,” Khaldi explained. “However, since the COVID-19 virus emerged there, supplies through the border have been restricted, with medical provisions very difficult to get.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has assessed the risk to Syria as “very high,” Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said, “due to the high numbers of vulnerable people, large-scale population movements, as well as the devastated state of the Syrian healthcare sector whose response preparedness and response capacity are not equipped for an outbreak.”

For the International Crisis Group, parts of north-west Syria, particularly around the rebel-held region of Idlib, are the most vulnerable. “The Russian onslaught on Idlib has systematically targeted hospitals and health facilities in the densely populated province,” Khalifa explained. “It also led to the displacement of more than 1 million people in the last 6 months alone.

“I visited Idlib a couple of times since the beginning of the offensive last year and what I saw was chilling. Thousands of families fleeing clashes sleep in fields or under trees and basic hygiene and distancing practices are made impossible by the lack of running water or soap as well as cramped living spaces,” she added.

Matters are only marginally better in north-east Syria, currently the disputed terrain of Turkish, Kurdish and international forces. “I was told that the entire north-east has less than 30 ventilators for the over 2 million Syrians living there and less than a handful of doctors are even capable of using them,” Khalifa said.

“There is not one equipped ICU and no testing kits. And in the biggest IDP camp there, al-Hol, 66,000 people (mostly children and women) live without clean water, adequate food and reliable medical services – much less soap or protective gear,” Khalifa said.

However, the spectre of coronavirus that now looms over Syria has at least brought some respite. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, March saw the lowest number of civilian casualties within Syria since the war began.