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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Coronavirus outbreak sparks more fears of epidemic

Syrians fear there is an unreported epidemic in the country [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 April, 2020

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Two reported deaths from coronavirus in Syria point to a much higher outbreak than is being acknowledged by authorities.

The coronavirus epidemic has continued to make headlines in Syria this week, with two deaths reported and more hardened measures taken by authorities to stem the spread of the disease. 

Meanwhile in opposition Idlib, medics and aid workers are bracing for the epidemic to reach the densely-populated camps of the northwest province.

The first death from Covid-19 was announced last Sunday, after a post-mortem was conducted on the deceased that confirmed the disease was responsible, according to the ministry of health.

"A woman died as soon as she had arrived at a hospital as an emergency case, and after conducting a test on a sample form her, it was clear she has coronavirus," the ministry said, according to SANA state news agency.

A day later, the ministry reported a second Covid-19-related death, bringing the official death toll up to two.

With two deaths from just 19 recorded cases, the high death toll among those with the disease - around 10 percent - indicates a failing healthcare system and/or a Covid-19 outbreak much more serious and widespread than is been officially acknowledged.

A full-scale lockdown in Syria - despite the economic implications this would bring - early on in the crisis, indicates that Bashar Al-Assad's regime fears Covid-19 will have devastating consequences for the country.

This week, the regime broadened the nationwide lockdown by extending the curfew to between 12pm to 6am on the Friday-Saturday weekends.

Pilgrimage site

One of the chief concerns for health authorities at present is a likely major outbreak in the neighbourhood of the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus, something now acknowledged by the Syrian regime.

The acting World Health Organisation representative to Syria, Dr. Nima Saeed Abid, said that the country is particularly susceptible to the spread of Covid-19 due to the presence of pilgrimage sites in the country and number of Syrians returning home from abroad.

"He noted that the second reason lies in the fact Syria enjoys a very important status as it hosts two honourable shrine, namely the shrine[s] of Sayyidah Zaynab and Sayyidah Ruqayyah in Damascus," SANA news agency reported.

The shrine sees many visitors "from the countries in the region where the pandemic appeared on a very large scale… Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan", the Syrian state news agency reported.

Syrian media have reported that the neighbourhood of Sayyida Zaynab shrine was put under quarantine after a case was discovered, an area under the nominal control of Iranian-led militias.

The outbreak has become so bad, that Iraqi Shia-Muslim pilgrims returning from Syria have tested positive for Covid-19, according to Karbala Governor Nusayif Al-Khitabi.

"Everyone who recently returned back from Syria has been quarantined to make sure he's not infected with coronavirus," the governor said in a Facebook post according to Reuters.

Sanctions relief

The coronavirus epidemic has seen Damascus attempt to drum up international support for an end to sanctions on the country.

This week China, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Iran, Russia, Syria and Venezuela wrote to the UN Secretary General appealing for an embargo on the country by the US and EU to be lifted.

There is little doubt that the impact of coronavirus will be immense and that the state of Syria's healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with the crisis.

Syrian regime media has partially acknowledged challenges the healthcare system faces due to the "exceptional circumstances" the country has endured over the past nine years.

Many have pointed out that even before the war, Syria's hospitals were chronically-underfunded and overseen by a corrupt and self-obsessed government.

One photo shared by activists, this week, highlighted this by comparing a hospital in regime areas with a clinic in opposition Idlib.

The alleged photo of the dilapidated government hospital ward showed a frayed bed, cracked walls, an overflowing bin, dirty floors, and only rudimentary medical equipment.

It contrasted poorly with the clinic in Idlib, which although modest is clean and well-equipped despite the lack of funding and other challenges the medical community there faces.  

"Take a look at the state of a hospital bed in Assad land. This did not start or happened because of the revolution, or the sanctions," activist Hashem said on Twitter.

"This is what you get after 50 years of acute corruption and a government that doesn't represent of care for its people."

Under fire

Although Idlib’s healthcare system is remarkably well organised given that it has endured years of siege and airstrikes, there are still huge challenges which could plunge the province into crisis if and when the coronavirus hits.

"Turkey has firmly shut Bab Al-Hawa border crossing even for emergencies and this presents a huge risk to people as it makes the movement of air and medical supplies almost impossible," said Batol Abdulkareem, from Syria Solidarity UK.

Residents of the Rukban camp in southern Syria are also facing huge problems in accessing vital medical supplies, as was highlighted this week with the case of five pregnant women.

"Jordan has shut the borders and prevented Rukban residents from accessing medical care, which was being provided by the UNHCR clinic," said Abdulkareem.

Humanitarian groups fear an outbreak of coronavirus in north Idlib camps that host around 1 million recently displaced people could kill thousands, due to shortages of vital medical equipment, overcrowding, and sanitary supplies.

A semi-official ceasefire covering Idlib province has been broken by the Syrian regime and despite appeals from the UN hostilities have resumed.

The White Helmets' Mousa Zidane told The New Arab that despite there being no reported cases of Covid-19 in opposition northwest Syria, fears of an outbreak in camps in northern Idlib has seen people risk regime attacks to return to their homes.

"People who have been displaced have started returning from IDP camps north of Idlib and from the city of Idlib to their villages on the front line in rural south Idlib and rural west Aleppo in fear of contracting Covid-19," he said.

The White Helmets have resumed operations to protect the Syrians returning to their homes, anticipating an attack.

There are fears a major new regime assault on west Aleppo and Idlib could be imminent, particularly to shift attention and criticism away from Damascus if a major outbreak of coronavirus breaks out in Syria.

For now, Syrian medics and NGO workers are doing what they can to mitigate the risks to refugees and prepare for the inevitable outbreak which it is feared could submerge the province with a new humanitarian crisis.

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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