Warning of epidemic in syria: corona in times of ceasefire

In Idlib, Syria, the guns are silent. People are pouring into the streets. WHO begins first Corona tests in the rebel province.

Corona is a topic everywhere: street disinfection in the city of Kamishli in northeastern Syria Photo: Baderkhan Ahmad/ap

Relief organizations tirelessly warn, but long ago a catastrophe could be difficult to avert. In Idlib, Syria, hardly anyone has been tested for the coronavirus so far. Only now the first tests have begun, as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Wednesday. That the virus has spared northwestern Syria would border on miraculous, even though Idlib is largely – but not completely – cut off from the outside world.

"People here underestimate Corona and don’t care about the virus," Suad al-Aswad from Idlib city tells taz by phone. "If cases do emerge, it will be a disaster because there are hardly any places to isolate here." There is also a shortage of medical personnel. Many doctors and nurses have left the service because of the bombardments of hospitals by the Syrian regime.

And there is something else that favors the spread of the virus: a ceasefire has been in effect in Idlib and parts of the neighboring provinces for about three weeks. Turkey and Russia, which call the shots in the region, have agreed to end the fighting. "Because of the cease-fire, people are really pouring into the streets," al-Aswad says, "The markets are packed with crowds and the stores are very tightly packed." Disinfectants are nowhere to be found, he adds.

WHO delivered the first three hundred Corona test kits across the Turkish-Syrian border to a lab in Idlib city on Tuesday. Several thousand are to follow. In addition, three hospitals with intensive care units and ventilators have been prepared for a spread of the coronavirus, a spokesman said Monday.

Ventilators are occupied

But aid organizations remain skeptical: "Although three hospitals with intensive care units have been identified, there are only 201 beds in total and only 95 ventilators," Misty Buswell of the aid organization International Rescue Committee (IRC), told the taz. "Most of the ventilators are currently in use, which means a Covid-19 outbreak is likely to overwhelm the health system."

Some four million people live in the rebel-held area of Idlib and parts of neighboring provinces. By comparison, the city of Berlin has nearly 100 hospitals and more than 1,000 ventilators for a population of about 3.6 million people (as of mid-March).

Suad al-Aswad, Idlib City

"There’s often a whole family living in the tents."

Buswell advocates for aid shipments that could be brought to Idlib via Turkey: "This includes not only personal protective equipment – masks, gloves and other protective items – for medical staff, but also medicines and equipment so that health facilities are prepared if Covid-19 breaks out among such a vulnerable population."

More than a million people have been displaced since December inside rebel-held territory, which the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, has been reclaiming piece by piece from largely Islamist insurgents for nearly a year. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in tents, unfinished houses and schools or mosques converted into collective shelters, according to UN figures. "More than ten family members share a room, and there is often a whole family living in the tents as well," says al-Aswad.

Curfew in regime areas

On Sunday, the Syrian government, which has regained control of most of the country’s territory apart from the northwest and northeast, had reported the first infection with the coronavirus. It was followed by four more cases on Wednesday. It ordered a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew to prevent it from spreading, according to the state-run Sana news agency.

Louay Yassin, spokesman for the aid organization SOS Children’s Villages, believes more people across the country are already infected. "The number of unreported cases is probably much higher," he informed. Because even in the regime areas, hardly any tests have been carried out so far, he said. "The Syrian health system is broken, it will never be able to withstand a pandemic."

The conflict in Syria is entering its tenth year these days. In Idlib, as in other regions of the country, Syrian government forces and the Russian Air Force have targeted hospitals in enemy territory, leaving medical infrastructure devastated. According to WHO, nearly 500 medical facilities were attacked between 20, two-thirds of them in Idlib and surrounding areas.

Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed the International Rescue Committee statement to IRC’s Kirsty Cameron. We have amended the relevant posts.

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