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Asharq Al-Awsat Tours Idlib amid Grave Concerns of Impending Virus Outbreak

Asharq Al-Awsat Tours Idlib amid Grave Concerns of Impending Virus Outbreak

Wednesday, 18 March, 2020 - 07:00
Syrian boys at coronavirus awareness workshop in a camp for displaced people in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. (AFP)
Idlib – Firas Karam

The World Health Organization will start testing for coronavirus in opposition-held northwest Syria later this week, the agency’s regional head said on Monday, adding that he was “very concerned” about the spread of the pandemic to a region where the health system has been wrecked by a ten-year war.

Only about half of medical facilities in the wedge of opposition-held Syria are operational. Nearly a million people recently displaced by violence are living in make-shift housing or crowded camps.

“We are hoping ... to have the machinery and the tests sometime this week so we can start testing,” said Dr. Rick Brennan, emergency director for the region, told Reuters. “And we are very concerned. All of the surrounding countries have documented cases.”

Syria’s regime has started testing in areas in the rest of the country, although has not yet reported a case to the WHO.

Over 3 million Syrians live in camps in northern parts of the country that lack the most basic daily and health needs. Concerns are high over the possibility of the virus spreading in the overcrowded camps amid a shortage of medical and health services and supplies. An outbreak in the camps could be catastrophic and only compound the people’s misery.

Asharq Al-Awsat toured parts of northern Syria and various displacement camps to assess the people’s concern as the coronavirus spreads in neighboring countries.

Abou Amjad is a father and refugee from the southern Idlib countryside. He lives in the Deir Hassan camp near the Turkish border. He said it would be catastrophic were the coronavirus to spread in the camps, which host millions of Syrians. “This camp houses some 1,000 families, who live in close quarters. Basic sewage is lacking and tents are not isolated from each other… of course, this will greatly help the rapid spread of the disease if just any person is infected,” he warned.

Head of the al-Fuqara and Muhajjareen camp near the border city of al-Dana, Hammoud Abou Mamdouh revealed that relief and medical agencies have yet to provide sanitizers and disinfectants to fend off the coronavirus. They have yet to provide soap and other hygiene supplies that the displaced need.

Moreover, none of the agencies have carried out campaigns to raise awareness among the residents over the dangers of the virus, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He revealed that the virus has indeed spread in four Syrian provinces, but authorities have not reported it. This only compounds fears that the coronavirus will reach refugee camps in the north, he warned, adding that residents from neighboring provinces travel freely between them which will only help spread the disease.

Activist Mosab al-Ashkar said it would be “impossible” to implement safety measures and limit the spread of the virus should it reach the northern camps given their overcrowding. The majority of the residents cannot even afford to buy basic health and preventative supplies. He revealed that the cost of one paper face mask costs some 250 Syrian pounds, hand soap ranges between 250 to 1,000 pounds a piece, half a kilogram of tissues costs 1,000 pounds, rubbing alcohol from pharmacies cost 1,500 pounds and a 250 ml bottle of hand sanitizer costs between 500 to 1,000 pounds. (1 USD = 1,000 pounds)

WHO health coordinator in Idlib Dr. Abdulhakim Ramadan said that as of yet, no coronavirus cases have been reported in northern Syria. He added however, that the region is not equipped to confirm whether the virus had spread there or not. An infectious diseases lab is present in Idlib, but it does not have the special coronavirus lab kits. They are expected to arrive within days. A taskforce that includes local and international agencies, the WHO and health departments has been formed to prepare for the outbreak, should it happen.

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