Syriaʹs crisis within a crisis – coronavirus could hit hard

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The corona pandemic has reached Syria. Anna Fleischer, Program Coordinator for Syria, explains why the virus could hit the country extremely hard and above all endanger those imprisoned. 

White Helmet volunteers spreading awareness about Covid-19 in displacement camps

While every country in the world was working on contingency plans to protect their population from the further spread of the coronavirus, the Assad regime was denying the existence of a single case of the virus in Syria. The official news agency SANA even reported that the WHO had confirmed this.

On 22 March, however, the denials came to an end as the Minister of Health publicly announced the first case. The country has since then implemented a lockdown and recently announced people are forbidden to move from one town to another, most likely trying to prevent the spread of the virus as families wish to gather during Ramadan.

There are reasons to doubt that Syria, of all countries, has been spared the spread of the virus. The Assad regime is backed by tens of thousands of Iranian fighters, and Iran is the most severely affected country in the region, with over 93,000 cases of coronavirus and almost 6,000 dead. What's more, Pakistani authorities reported that the country's first cases were six fighters from the Zeinabiyoun Brigade who had just returned from territories held by the Syrian regime.

According to official figures published by the Syrian Ministry of Health on April 19, Syria has only recorded 42 cases of Covid-19, three deaths and six recoveries. It is worth noting that all these cases where in regime-controlled areas. This is an extremely low number considering the deplorable state the country is in after almost a decade of war.

Dysfunctional health system

What gives cause for alarm here is the desolate state of the Syrian health-care system. According to the United Nations, up to 70% of health workers have left Syria, and at the end of last year only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary health-care centres in the country were fully operational. Syria is therefore particularly ill-prepared to face a pandemic.

According to Layla Hasso from the Syrian children's rights network Hurras, Syria has at its disposal 200 beds in intensive care units with respirators in areas not controlled by the regime. However, these beds are already occupied by patients with other conditions. 

The government's belated and obviously unrealistic coronavirus strategy endangers all civilians, whether in regime-controlled areas or not. The ongoing conflict has forced millions of Syrians to flee within the country's borders. Four million are currently holding out in northwest Syria, in the province of Idlib. In Northeast Syria meanwhile, the WHO was prevented by the Syrian regime to set up a testing lab for Covid-19, making the response virtually impossible. 

What is even more devastating is the long-standing tactic of the Syrian regime and its allies to target health facilities, which already leaves the region of Idlib extremely vulnerable. It is clear that a pandemic will not be manageable in the region, in which most health facilities have been bombed. 

Adding to this, the WHO deals exclusively with the regime in Damascus, so all testing machines for the virus are located in the capital. When NGOs working in Idlib asked the WHO to provide them with a machine, they were told to send samples to Damascus instead. This seems cynical considering the regime’s track record of consistently withholding humanitarian aid and medical supplies from rebellious communities as a tool to force them to surrender.

According to Dr Munzer al-Khalil, the head of Idlib Heatlh Direcorate: “The World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t delivered $1 to Idlib for its coronavirus response. It hasn’t given health facilities in northwest Syria a single bed to receive coronavirus patients. We know there are logistical problems in receiving ventilators globally, but what about oxygen generators and patient beds?"

Securitizing the virus

It has become clear in the recent weeks that the Assad regime is not dealing with this pandemic as a public health crisis, but as a security issue. It has been securitizing the pandemic, asking people not to hesitate to “report” those who are sick. Anyone familiar with the Syrian state practices will shudder at this call. As Mazen Gharibah, a leading expert on the Corona pandemic in his native Syria, put it: “All Syrians know what informing the authorities actually means.” 

Inside hospitals, there are secret police officers trying to control every piece of information on Covid-19 in order to prevent any information reaching the public. Outside the hospitals, they arrested individuals who spread rumors on social media about possible COVID-19 cases, even when they communicated accurate information. One resident informed his colleagues that another colleague was sick. He was subsequently arrested, even though this information could encourage individuals to get tested, self-isolate to prevent the spread of the virus or take any other preventative measures.

Mazen added in a recent interview with Syria Untold: “I’ve talked to a lot of people who said that, ‘We prefer not to declare any symptoms so we won’t have any trouble with the authorities,’ which is obviously a catastrophe when you have a pandemic and people are afraid to go to hospitals to seek medical attention or declare symptoms.”

Corona a danger to the imprisoned

While the situation for internally displaced persons is becoming increasingly acute, there is another group of extremely vulnerable people in Syria: the detainees in Assad's prisons. Human Rights Watch warns that the inhumane conditions in the regime's prisons could make the effects of coronavirus much worse. Just the sheer overcrowding alone but also the wretched hygienic and medical conditions could allow the virus to spread extremely quickly.

"What is terrifying to consider is that [Syrian] authorities knew of and enforced these conditions by denying detainees adequate food, medical care, sanitation supplies, ventilation, and space. This aligns with what we know of the Syrian government’s abusive practices towards detainees, including widespread and systematic torture, mistreatment, and sexual violence," says Sarah Kayyali from the human rights organisation in her statement.

“2464 days for my dad in #Assad prisons. Almost 7 years in fear, sadness, anger, and hope. I've always tried to avoid thinking: is he alive? Is he fine? Is he hungry? Will I ever see him again? With the #Covid_19 disaster now, it's more difficult than ever to resist the pain.”
— Wafa Mustafa (@WafaMustafa9) March 30, 2020

This is a tweet by Wafa Mustafa, the daughter of a political prisoner. She herself is in Berlin and is very fearful of an outbreak of the pandemic in Syrian prisons. It is especially difficult these days for the families of prisoners to protect themselves while always thinking of their relatives and loved ones who are imprisoned in inhumane torture facilities.

High risk of infection 

In an open letter, members of civil society and representatives of the opposition on the Syrian Constitutional Committee demand access to all of the Syrian regime's detention facilities by the International Red Cross as well as the responsible UN authorities. Detainees in Syrian prisons are at much higher risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus – and have a much lower chance of survival. Although Syria signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Arab Declaration of Human Rights, it has never been a member of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, which formulated the rules on the absolute fundamental rights of prisoners. Thus, the Syrian regime does not feel obliged to meet even the minimum standards for prisoners.
According to Amnesty International, "Detainees are already weakened by torture and other abuse, by neglect and fears for their future. An outbreak of coronavirus would be a complete disaster. There is major concern that prisoners in Syria are effectively going to be left to contract COVID-19 and die.”

"It's like being buried under ground"

Fadwa Mahmoud is therefore very worried about her son Maher and her husband. Both have been missing for years. They were apprehended at Damascus Airport in 2012 and there has been no trace of them ever since. "I know what it's like in the prisons. You can't see the sun or feel the wind, for years. It's like being buried under ground," she says in a heavy voice – she herself was a political prisoner in the 1980s under Hafez al-Assad. She has fled in the meantime, and is now haunted by the thought of a possible pandemic in Syrian prisons.

The regime has reacted cynically by issuing yet another amnesty, probably utterly without consequence like all those in the past. Whether this decision is in response to the fear of COVID-19 remains unclear. Sarah Kayyali from Human Rights Watch calls on "humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies to urgently press for access to formal and informal detention facilities, to provide detainees with life-saving assistance. The Syrian government certainly won't."
 

The article was first published on Qantara.de