Fear of Coronavirus Stalks Camps in Syria’s Idlib
In a camp in northwestern Syria, Abdallah Yassin listens to a doctor explain how to avoid coronavirus infection, desperately hoping it will never reach his tent of 14 people.
"If the epidemic spreads in the camps, it will be a disaster," the 57-year-old grandfather says.
Three million people live in Syria's last major opposition bastion of Idlib, many of them families who fled homes elsewhere in Syria and are now reduced to living in camps without basic amenities.
Almost one million more have been thrown onto the roads since December, after the government launched a deadly offensive that has battered the region's already dilapidated healthcare system.
The government on Sunday announced Syria's first officially confirmed coronavirus case, sparking fears of the implications for the war-torn country, where many still live outside the control of the government.
As part of the effort to prevent the worst in the Idlib region, a doctor is visiting Yassin's camp in Kafr Lusin to raise awareness.
Always shield your sneezes, he tells a dozen people gathered around him, either listening carefully or reading flyers.
Before he hands out surgical masks, the doctor from Turkish aid group the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) reminds them that an infected person can show no outward symptoms for up to two weeks.
But Yassin is unconvinced that this advice will be enough to help.
"Instead of coming here and lecturing us, why don't they set up a clinic for all these people," he says.
"There are thousands of people here. We sleep 14 in the same tent," he says, trying to convey his alarm.
The virus is the latest threat to the three million people who live in Idlib, where a fragile truce has largely halted the regime's bombardment since the start of the month.
The IHH doctor, Ibrahim Tlass, agrees that the prospect of an outbreak in the camps is worrying.
"They would be the areas most at risk if the virus did start spreading," he says.
"That's where the population density is highest and where there's the least awareness about the issue," he tells AFP.
Across the region, aid workers are bracing for a possible wave of the illness.
For a start, a laboratory in Idlib received 300 diagnosis kits on Tuesday and has started using them, a doctor said.
"But these kits are still very few in view of the population density we have here," said doctor Mohammad Shaham Mekki.
The World Health Organization has said it hopes to send in 2,000 more tests soon.
In case there are positive cases, three hospitals with intensive care units have been modified as isolation units equipped with ventilators, it said.