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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Coronavirus reaps further miseries on Syrians

Syria has recorded 9 cases of the coronavirus [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 March, 2020

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Analysts have painted a grim outlook for Syria as the deadly coronavirus hits the war-torn country.
Damascus recorded its first case of the coronavirus on Sunday, as the deadly pandemic that has swept through much of the world continued to prompt calls for concern.

The first case was reportedly a 20-year-old woman who had travelled to Syria from the UK via Beirut, contrasting with earlier reports from activists who claimed outbreaks in Syria via Iranian officers and Tehran-backed fighters deployed to the country.

Official figures noted nine cases by Sunday, with the regime taking widespread measures to tackle the outbreak that medical experts have warned could devastate the country.

Markets, public transport, and shops have largely closed and on Wednesday this was expanded to include a nationwide night-time curfew, imposed from 6pm to 6am.

"The curfew is serious, and any violator will be detained and face legal measures," Interior Minister Mohammed Al-Rahmoun warned on Wednesday.

Given the state of the regime prisons - and the potential for an outbreak inside them - the ominous threat by the interior minister appears to be one that is being taken seriously.

Curfew

State TV has screened shots of deserted streets in Aleppo and Damascus during the night-time. The few transgressors caught on camera were given stern warnings by army officers, although the response for violating the curfew is generally much harsher than a public rebuke.

Syrian state news reported that 153 people were detained for breaking the curfew on the first night and 345 more on Thursday evening.

Schools have been suspended until at least mid-April, while intra-city public transport was also banned on the weekend.

To ease the spread of the virus in jails, the Syrian regime last week announced that some prisoners would be released, although not political detainees.

Reserve officers who have completed three years commissions and reserve soldiers who have served in the army for seven will be demobilised, the military command said on Sunday.

Despite the measures, health professionals have warned that Syria is ill-prepared to deal with a major outbreak.
An LSE report highlighted this stark reality, recording just 325 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds with ventilators to cover the whole of the country.

"Although at the time of publishing this memo there have only been five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Syria, several indicators suggest that the virus is already significantly more widely spread across the country," the report states.

In the eastern province of Deir az-Zour, there are no ICU beds at all, according to the report.

Omar Abu Layla, director of monitoring site DeirEzzor24, said that there have been several reported cases of the disease among Iranian militias that control the regime-controlled western side of the Euphrates River, including the cities of Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal.

One elderly woman in Deir az-Zour who reportedly caught the disease was transferred to a Damascus hospital for treatment, due to the lack of facilities in the east.

"There is an unprecedented secrecy among the Assad regime about the number of cases of the disease in Deir az-Zour and this frightens civilians even in the (Kurdish and Arab tribal-controlled) areas east of the Euphrates," Abu Layla told The New Arab.

"The people in Deir az-Zour are in a state of fear and know that the Iranian militias are the ones who brought it there, especially as they are moving with ease between Iran, Iraq and Syria."

The US-led international coalition, which is present to the east of the Euphrates, recently closed river crossings with the regime-controlled east bank, to stop the spread of the disease.

"This is considered good but not enough. It is feared that these crossings will be reopened and will threaten the region as movement between the two banks of the Euphrates may transfer the virus," Abu Layla said.

In the SDF autonomous areas, the medical community is said to be ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak and has no COVID-19 test kits, Abu Layla added.

"The WHO came to the areas of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), but to date no real equipment has been provided to deal with the disease," he added.

Read also: Coronavirus could kill 100,000 Syrians in Idlib's refugee camps

There have been limited quarantine and social distancing measures enforced by authorities here and some local organisations are spreading awareness about the disease.

SAM Development organisation has reached 100,000 civilians in Al-Suheil and distributed more than 2,500 leaflets to encourage people to stay at home.

People across Deir az-Zour fear the Assad regime is downplaying the number of cases to avoid any "meddling" in Syria by the international community, something that the Assad regime will likely see as a threat to its rule.

"People fear a catastrophe will take place and this is what we talk about constantly," Abu Layla said.

Another problem is that the curfews and restrictions on trade and movement of goods and people will further damage the weak economy in eastern Syria.

"The economy in the region has been extremely affected as 80 to 90 percent of the work has been stopped due to the quarantine and basically the area has no good services," he said.

"It is a frightening state to live in, because of the war and existing cells, so that means there has been a significant impact on the economy caused by the virus."

Economic damage

Syria's fragile economy is already showing worrying signs of damage due to the curfew measures, including the halting of movement with neighbouring Lebanon, which has been an important source of hard currency and goods.

Staples such as bread and vegetables in Syria are in short supply and hit by inflation, while the Syrian lira dropped to a new low of over 1,300 pounds to the dollar.

Many shops and public offices have closed, schools and universities suspended, and major public and cultural events cancelled, while parliamentary elections have been pushed back to 20 May.

A protracted suspension of ordinary life in Syria will see business hit, government revenues shrink, and further pressure on ordinary Syrians, Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group told The New Arab.

"Ministries were instructed to reduce the effective workforce by 40 percent of normal staffing without affecting the delivery of services and announced a complete closure of the border to Lebanon," Khalifa said.

Syrian state media announced this week that anyone caught illegally entering Syria from Lebanon would be quarantined for two weeks. The drop in oil prices could be a silver lining for the government, but the drop in the lira's value will likely negate the benefits of cheap fuel.

"It is hard to envision how the regime can afford to shutdown businesses right now, given the already unprecedented economic situation that predates the pandemic outbreak," Khalifa said.

"The government is unable to provide basic services like providing wheat to state-run bakeries and might very likely be unable to pay civil servants soon."

Parallel authorities will likely benefit from the breakdown in state services, Khalifa said, something that will further impact on ordinary Syrians.

"The deteriorating economic conditions have led to parallel networks in Damascus to become more extractive and corruption levels to increase. COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate this," Khalifa added.

Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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