War-exhausted Syrians struggle to cope with coronavirus pandemic

'Our fear is doubled': Exhausted by war, Syrians struggle to cope with coronavirus pandemic
5 min read
08 April, 2020
Amid regime secrecy about the spread of Covid-19, war-weary Syrians face skyrocketing prices and food shortages as bomb-damaged health systems are unable to cope with the pandemic.
Only about half of public hospitals and primary health care facilities are fully functional. [Getty]
After weeks of denial and claiming 'immunity' against the coronavirus pandemic, the Syrian regime reported its first case of Covid-19 in late March. 

Nineteen additional cases have since been recorded in Syria, including two deaths. In response to the threat, the government has closed schools, halted all public transportation, instituted a nationwide curfew, and restricted movement between urban centres and rural areas. 

But these recent preventive measures hardly ease Syrians' worries, and local experts are intensely worried about the consequences if the infection begins to spread more rapidly.  

"The situation is miserable," says Rania, a mother of five from Aleppo. "We already don't have electricity or water. Piles of garbage are everywhere. Stray dogs are roaming the streets attacking people. Thefts and burglaries by government and Iranian militias are on the rise - what preventive measures are you talking about?" 

Beyond these significant environmental and safety concerns, Rania and her family are also struggling with a spike in the food prices prompted by the pandemic.

Skyrocketing prices

Syrians had already been suffering from rising living costs due to the country's deepening economic problems and the devaluation of the Syrian pound, but the outbreak of the virus has led private sellers to take advantage of the situation and raise the prices of goods and services.

Read more: Syria Weekly: Coronavirus outbreak sparks more
fears of epidemic

"The prices are skyrocketing. The bread, rice, tea, sugar - everything is getting more expensive by the day," Rania told The New Arab. "We have been going to bed hungry for a week. We will not forgive those raising the prices and taking advantage of us."  

Moahamad Azrak, an activist and an aid worker from Aleppo, says the price-hike combined with the virus outbreak could lead to "a serious disaster," as food shortages are getting worse and lines for bread are getting ridiculously longer

"People cannot practice social distancing if they have to wait in line for hours to buy a piece of bread," Moahamad points out. "What is a curfew going to do if people are starving? If all they can think about is food and rent?"

Struggling with these immediate worries and anticipating even greater challenges, many Syrians are afraid. A resident from Damascus - who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons - said people don't want to admit to their fear, dismissing it with the notion that "nothing can scare [Syrians] anymore," but in reality everyone is afraid. 

We are living in an exhausted place, in a war-torn country. We can barely cope with the flu here, let alone an epidemic

"The entire world is afraid of corona[virus], but our fear is doubled," says the resident. "We are living in an exhausted place, in a war-torn country. We can barely cope with the flu here, let alone an epidemic." 

The Syrian regime has been highly secretive about the spread of the virus, and cases in Syria are likely to far exceed the government's official numbers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Read more: For Syrian chemical attack victims, OPCW report blaming Assad is too little, too late

The regime's capacity to cope with the pandemic is limited - and an outbreak is likely to be catastrophic. With only about half of public hospitals and primary health care facilities fully functional, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that Syria's "fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond" to the pandemic.

'Desperate and exhausted'

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reaches Greek refugee camps

For many displaced Syrians living outside government-controlled areas in northern Syria, the prospect of a coronavirus fallout is even scarier. There are over four million people in northwestern Syria, living in densely populated conditions with little access to healthcare, according to the UN. 

In Idlib province, medical facilities, including clinics and hospitals, have been heavily targeted by the Syrian regime, and most had to shut down.

"My worst fear as a healthcare worker is for the virus to spread in the north," explains Mohammed Abdullah, a displaced nurse from northern Aleppo residing in Idlib. "Just imagine what would happen to us! If world powers are not capable of containing the virus, how can we with our very limited capacities? It will be the end."

Mohammed worries that many in northern Syria are not taking the situation seriously because they are too exhausted by almost a decade of war and are too busy worrying about basic survival. 

Many people are too desperate and exhausted to care. They say they have been exposed to the 'Assad virus' for the past nine years

"Many people are too desperate and exhausted to care," he explains. "They say they have been exposed to the 'Assad virus' for the past nine years."

Various organisations in northern Syria, including the White Helmets, have been organising campaigns to spread awareness about coronavirus. But when people cannot afford to take the most basic preventive measures, awareness campaigns might not be enough.

Read more: Coronavirus threatens more misery for vulnerable Middle East refugees

Fareed al-Mhlol, a journalist and photographer who was displaced to Salqin city after the Syrian regime destroyed his home in the town of Maarat al-Numan, says refugees in camps along the Syrian-Turkish border are already living in miserable conditions, and they need far more support than what is currently provided.

"The camps here are packed. People here don't have water. They can't afford food, much less masks and hand sanitiser," Fared warns.

"Nothing, nothing will be able to contain the pandemic here."

Tesbih Habbal is a Syrian writer, editor and researcher focusing on international relations, human rights and the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @Tesbihhabbal1