Syria imposes restrictions in the face of virus risk but still allows flights from Iran

The WHO assessed the risk of a coronavirus outbreak as “very high in Syria.”
Sunday 22/03/2020
A Syrian medic holds an awareness campaign on the coronavirus pandemic, in a camp for displaced people in the province of Idlib, Syria. (AP)
Multiple tragedies. A Syrian medic holds an awareness campaign on the coronavirus pandemic, in a camp for displaced people in the province of Idlib, Syria. (AP)

As the wider world goes into lockdown because of the coronavirus threat, people in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere are getting an — albeit forced — sense of everyday life for millions of Syrians.

What’s happening in much of the world looks a lot like life in Syria in 2011 and 2012, a time of revolution, hope and trepidation. In 2011, millions of Syrian children went without basic education for months in an attempt by the Assad regime to keep people off the streets, be they anti-government protesters or regular citizens. Universities were closed to prevent students gathering and planning protests and Friday prayers cancelled to stop worshippers doing likewise.

Today, religious congregations and universities have been suspended in dozens of countries — much like during the early days of the Syrian revolution.

Back then, the Syrian government enforced stay-at-home lockdowns in places such as Modamieh, Douma and Harasta in the Damascus suburbs. Even in communities without public anti-government protests, water, gas and petrol restrictions were wholesale. We would spend entire days crawling from petrol station to petrol station in Damascus in search of fuel for the car — wasting precious working hours — and no doubt adding to the sense of fear that permeated life.

Daily power cuts would happen in 4-hour stints. At 7pm, the power would go and with it television and internet access, something that contributed to an enduring feeling of helplessness for many. People worried about getting enough home heating oil and natural gas for cooking, with the price of both items rocketing 400% in 2011. What’s happening today across Europe because of the coronavirus feels very similar.

Even now, Syrians find themselves burdened by the current crisis. Workers in the country’s vast and overstretched public sector have been told to stay at home, much like many other countries where the virus has taken hold.

For Syrians, however, a lack of adequate residential internet infrastructure, including high-speed internet, means they are unable to continue working and earning a full salary. Even for those with good internet service, the archaic nature of the public system means that remote working in Syria can’t operate as efficiently as in other countries.

What’s more, while governments in many developed countries have tabled packages such as mortgage and tax relief and issuing cheques for people who can’t get to work, in Syria no such measures are likely to come to pass.

Across Syria, schools have been closed until at least April 2; nightclubs, wedding halls, even public parks and citizens’ service centres have been ordered to close.

As of March 16, 134 Syrian citizens having returned from overseas, had been quarantined at a facility outside Damascus. The Syrian government’s efforts at stopping the spread of the virus were mostly limited to disinfecting public transport vehicles and operating cleaning measures at Damascus International Airport.

One of the only countries with direct flights to Syria is Iran — a major epicentre of the coronavirus crisis with tens of thousands of infections likely and hundreds dead.

Despite this, Syrian Health Minister Nizar Yazaji claimed there are no cases of the virus in Syria. The World Health Organisation’s office in Damascus said it “assesses the risk (of a coronavirus outbreak) is very high in Syria… The government of Syria is working with the available capacities, which are not at all matching countries which are not under conflict.”

Equally as incredible is that Syria continues to allow direct flights from Tehran. There have also been multiple reports of doctors treating patients with coronavirus-like symptoms but who are too fearful to report their suspicions to authorities.

Another concern is that, while in 2011 Syria boasted a relatively well-functioning health system, if even wholly ill-prepared to deal with a mass viral outbreak, today that system mostly lies in ruins.

Perhaps the biggest threat in Syria, as pointed out by Human Rights Watch, is the tens of thousands of people arbitrarily detained in dungeon-like conditions for opposing the regime. Their health is in considerable peril.

“The Syrian government maintains that there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Syria thus far but its neighbours have all reported cases and it is clear how catastrophic even one case in Syria’s overcrowded prisons would be,” Human Rights Watch said.

The main difference between the lockdown that much of the world is dealing with and what’s happening in Syria is that, for the wider world, there is light at the end of the tunnel, whenever that may shine. In Syria, it’s simply a case of going from bad to worse.

What’s more, anything that has the potential to rock the boat and cause people to act out of the ordinary — a global viral pandemic, for example — is seen by the Assad regime as a threat to its power and tends to make it very nervous.

So, not only do Syrians have to deal with the global pandemic and all that entails, they are again faced with a regime fearful that people may rise up once more.