Syrian efforts to halt the coronavirus

Bassel Oudat , Wednesday 18 Mar 2020

The spread of Covid-19 is another point of contention between the Syrian regime and opposition amid both parties’ denial of any cases in Syria

People crossing from Turkey into northern Syria walk through the Bab al-Salama border crossing and are checked for coronavirus (photo: AFP)

The Syrian regime has announced the closure of schools, universities and public places, reduced working hours, and allowing working women to be on leave in its efforts to halt any spread of the coronavirus in Syria.

Scientific, cultural, social and sports events have been suspended in the country. There will be a reduction of 40 per cent in the number of workers in the public sector. The shisha (water pipe) has been banned in restaurants and coffee shops.

Syria’s government has not admitted any coronavirus infections in the country up to now, but the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Syrian medical sources had said there were infections in areas controlled by the regime.

The observatory has documented at least 62 cases of coronavirus in these areas, saying that some cases have died and others have been quarantined. It added that doctors in Syrian regime strongholds had received strict orders not to speak about the spread of the virus.

The Syrian opposition has long spoken about the dangers Syria is facing as a result of the close relationship between the Syrian and Iranian regimes, particularly because Syria has not closed its borders with Iran as a result of the strong strategic relationship and continued military movements between the two countries.

Large numbers of Iranians entered and exited Syria last month to visit holy sites, and many Iranian forces reside in Syria with their families. Iran has recorded thousands of coronavirus cases, being one of the countries having the highest number of recorded infections.

On the other hand, activists in the Syrian opposition’s strongholds in the northwest of the country said this week it was necessary to close the roads connecting their strongholds to the areas the Syrian regime controls.

They warned that not making this move could turn the opposition’s strongholds into a new centre for the spread of Covid-19.

The activists demanded that international bodies with representation in northern Syria form emergency teams to curb losses that may be incurred as a result of the spread of the new oronavirus.

The Response Coordination Group in northern Syria said it was observing the accelerated spread of the virus to 114 countries, including in the Middle East. It added that the new coronavirus had become a direct threat to northwest Syria and that closing the routes was imperative to keep the area free of the virus.

The group believes that northwest Syria is so far coronavirus-free because it is isolated from the rest of the world.

It said some elements affiliated with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were infected with the virus in areas controlled by the opposition, warning that there were large numbers of displaced people, immigrants, camp inhabitants and slum areas in the region that could see the rapid spread of the virus.

Local sources in northwest Syria reported that the region, inhabited by three million people, was free of the virus because it has been living in isolation for months. There is an absence of crossings to areas controlled by the regime, and the Turkish border crossings do not allow the passage of people without special permission.

There are worries about the spread of the virus in Idlib in northwest Syria, where three million Syrians live in abject poverty and there are no healthcare services. Under these conditions, and if international help is not provided, Idlib will become a new epicentre for the coronavirus.

Amid these fears in opposition strongholds and the denial of the regime in the areas it controls, Syrian people are divided between those panicking over the spread of the virus and those who are indifferent to its hazards or are not even aware of its dangers.

Meanwhile, the authorities are avoiding their responsibility to protect citizens against the spread of the virus.

Although a Pakistani newspaper published a report recently saying nine coronavirus cases at Karachi Airport had been recorded, six of whom were from Syria and were mostly Iranian or Afghani, the Syrian regime denies that there are any infections in the country.

Some civilians are trying to protect themselves, while others ignore safety concerns and are simply preoccupied with the harsh economic conditions. Masks are hard to find, and people do not buy them as they cannot afford them.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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