The impact of the new coronavirus outbreak in Syria will be like no other across the globe. The virus may already be spreading in the war-torn country where people have fled their homes to tents to escape fighting and where hospitals have not been spared the conflict. The ravaged country has splintered into three regions that are controlled by different powers and different armies.
The country had been waiting the light at the end of the tunnel, but is instead confronted with a different kind of threat, a virus that has claimed the lives of thousands across the globe.
Experts have predicted that Syria is two months away from being devastated by the deadly outbreak. Damascus, which only recently registered its first virus cases, initially spoke of “respiratory infections” that have claimed lives here and there. The word “coronavirus” has not yet been introduced into its official rhetoric.
Several reasons make a coronavirus outbreak in Syria different than other countries:
1 - The government no longer controls all of the entire country. It currently controls two-thirds of territories and major cities, but through Russian and Iranian power. The remaining third, located east of the Euphrates River, is controlled by the autonomous Kurdish authority with the backing of the US-led international coalition fighting ISIS. Turkey-backed Syrian opposition factions control northern and northwestern Syria.
These three areas are all bound by a crumbling health sector. In regime-controlled areas, doctors have fled from mandatory military enlistment or have sought a better life. Those who remained were drafted in the military. In areas beyond regime control, hospitals have been destroyed by Russian and Syrian jet strikes
2 - United Nations agencies are allowed to legally operate in Damascus, where the government is based, and not in opposition-controlled regions. However, the UN’s restricted operation in the capital in recent years has turned it into a “hostage” of the regime’s decisions and calculations, which has consequently impacted the agency’s work on the ground. This has grown evident as preparations get underway to confront the coronavirus.
3 - The regime may have recaptured the majority of border crossings and airports, but many still remain beyond Damascus’ control. Crossings with Iraq and Turkey remain under Kurdish or opposition control. This only complicates Syria’s fight against the outbreak.
4 - The displacement of more than half of the population will create more challenges in countering the coronavirus. More than 6 million have fled abroad, while the rest are internally displaced in various overcrowded camps.
Other factors to consider are the economic crisis that have seen the pound trade at 1,200 to the US dollar when it used to trade at 46 pounds to the dollar at the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Power outages also impact health work, as do the American and European sanctions against the regime and figures and entities affiliated to it. Damascus’ Arab and western isolation will only compound its struggle to fight the virus.
Amid these challenges, the regime has sought to “politicize” the war against the coronavirus. Moscow, Beijing and Damascus have kicked off a campaign to lift sanctions off the regime. China has yet to dispatch a plane with medical aid to Syria as it did with Italy. Washington and western countries have started to release prisoners from jails in an effort to fight the outbreak.
The UN is divided. Its workers in Damascus lean towards the regime and are leading efforts to lift the sanctions, but they are not holding dialogue with the regime to urge it to be transparent in its handling of the coronavirus. In effect, these agencies are seeking to address an outbreak that has not been acknowledged by the official authorities. Just days ago, UN agencies held a coordination meeting, but regime officials failed to attend. Demands were made, but the channel of communication to ensure the demands are met or even voiced is nonexistent. The demands focus on sending aid to the whole of Syria and ensuring that they are granted access through border crossings.
But what about the actual health situation in Syria? An internal UN report and another by London University painted a predictably bleak picture.
Countries have halted flights to Syria and border crossings have gradually closed over a period of two months. Access at border points with Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon remain open to aid and food trucks and humanitarian and UN workers.
Inside Syria, a general sense of panic has gripped the population and people have rushed to stockpile supplies. All essential products are provided by the government in areas under its control. That has not stopped the people from queuing at stores. The panic does not stem from the lack of information from the government’s end, but from the fact that the people have no other choice.
The economic impact of the virus is another burden that will weigh down on the people where more than 80 percent live in poverty. The price of bread and other essential products have risen and shortages have been reported. Disinfectants, face masks and hand sanitizers are in short supply and those available have seen their prices skyrocket. Moreover, estimates reveal that the whole of Syria boasts only 12,000 hospital beds. Some 2,000 coronavirus test kits arrived in Damascus this week, but the regime does not officially divulge such information.
Sources in Damascus revealed: “No resources have been allocated to fight the coronavirus because the treasury is broke.” The government refuses to allow international agencies to gather information about the health sector. Furthermore, people who have shown symptoms of the virus are afraid of seeking hospital treatment.
International experts in Damascus predict that the coronavirus outbreak in Syria will peak in May or June. At the moment, the people speak of a “respiratory infection”, not coronavirus, to avoid bringing up the issue of government response. The government has imposed a partial curfew and has limited means to respond to the outbreak and handle its terrible social and economic impact, said a western official in Damascus.
A total of 65,000 people can be tested for the virus, predicted the London University report. The health care system will likely collapse when the cases exceed this figure. No less than 5 percent of the projected infections will die. Compounding this is a lack of awareness about the virus among the population.
Syria has recorded five cases of coronavirus so far, but evidence points that the figure is much greater. The government has suspended Friday prayers and banned gatherings, shut schools, restaurants, sports clubs and reduced working hours in the public sector. Just days ago, Damascus placed 100 people in quarantine after they had arrived in the country from Iran, the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the region. Meanwhile, Pakistan announced earlier this month that seven people who had arrived there from Syria were infected with the virus. Baghdad announced two cases in travelers from Syria.
The London University report said significant evidence exists in regime areas of people who have shown severe symptoms of the coronavirus, some of whom died. Indeed, Syria has registered a sharp rise in deaths from respiratory infections in people above 60 years of age. Hospital workers in Damascus revealed they had received oral orders from intelligence officers to bury such reports with the dead to avoid raising any alarm in the media.