MSF Spokesperson: Virus Did not Convince Syrian Regime to Allow Us to Operate
Contrary to some natural disasters that satellites can predict, such as floods and hurricanes, health disasters such as the new coronavirus pandemic that the world has been suffering from since last December, happen suddenly. While this health challenge has revealed that many countries are not ready for this kind of test after implications of the virus caused many troubles, it has enhanced the role of international organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) that deploy their medical staff and mobile hospitals wherever there are disasters and wars to provide aid and assistance.
In her conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat, MSF spokesperson Salwa Abu Chakra reviewed the efforts that MSF has made to help fragile healthcare systems in the area to confront the COVID-19 crisis and how the organization operates in countries that are torn by competing political factions.
Abu Chakra clarified that COVID-19 has exhausted the wealthiest and most prepared healthcare systems in the world. She says: “That certainly makes us concerned about the projected trajectories for countries such as Yemen and Syria. The pandemic has exhausted all healthcare systems that provide national health coverage.
“Similarly, we are facing tremendous difficulties, and like everybody else, we need to make difficult decisions given the limited resources we have. These choices, however, will first and foremost focus on protecting our staff and patients, and to maintain life-saving activities as much as possible”.
In response to the question: How is MSF dealing with political divisions in the countries where it operates? Abu Chakra clarified that “the pandemic did not change how we operate in war zones, where we provide aid to whoever is in need without any discrimination. We use our independence and neutrality to negotiate with different sides of conflicts to reach people, but we do face many limitations that hinder us from reaching certain areas in the countries where we operate”.
Libya and refugee detention centers
As far as Libya is concerned, Abu Chakra clarified that MSF is operating under the current conditions in the country with a “local and decentralized approach that has helped us secure our health and humanitarian activities according to humanitarian need, regardless of political affiliations”.
She considered that the “situation of the displaced in Libya is turning from bad to worse after COVID-19 had arrived and the conflict escalated. Libya is not safe for the displaced and for refugees who are subjected to many life-threatening dangers such as arbitrary arrests and detentions for unknown reasons, violence, and extreme exploitation.
“In light of the fighting and random bombing escalating, and the absence of humanitarian organizations and the suspension of flights to Libya and the absence of humanitarian aid ships affiliated with non-governmental organizations that operate in the Mediterranean Sea, and the lack of European capacities to search and rescue, refugees and the displaced are stuck in Libya and are in more danger than ever”.
As for Yemen, Abu Chakra clarified that the country “lacks most of the medical protective and diagnostic equipment that would allow it to respond to the pandemic. Five years of war have left the healthcare system in the country in ruins. The disease can spread very rapidly, especially in crowded areas such as cities and refugee camps.
In rural areas, however, the response operation will face tremendous difficulties considering the rarity of healthcare facilities and the near-total absence of any capacities for diagnosis, tracing, isolation and other healthcare procedures. The very few hospitals and healthcare facilities there lack the critical care capacities necessary to treat critical patients”.
Abu Chakra highlighted MSF’s efforts to combat COVID-19 in Iraq. She said: “The number of confirmed cases in Baghdad is the highest in Iraq, knowing that the first of our virus-related activities in Iraq started in Baghdad a few weeks ago, where MSF provides support to the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad affiliated with the Ministry of Health, one of three hospitals treating COVID-19 patients”.
The spokesperson discussed the reason why MSF is absent in the coronavirus scene in Iran despite having operated there for many years.
She said: “The MSF team in Tehran provides healthcare to vulnerable populations such as drug users and Afghan refugees who face difficulties in receiving healthcare. It also planned to enter Isfahan by the end of March 2020, a coronavirus hotbed, and had rented two cargo planes with materials that it needed to launch a temporary treatment unit with 50 beds as per its agreement with the Iranian authorities. However, the plan did not come to fruition. The cargo for the temporary hospital is still in Tehran and we plan on using it in areas that need it the most to respond to the pandemic”.