After nine years of a deadly civil war, the health system in Syria is barely functioning. In territories controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, the authorities deny the presence of COVID-19.
According to Johns Hopkins University, the country has confirmed 439 cases and 21 deaths as of July 15. But stories on the ground reveal how the state has denied and repressed the realities of COVID-19.
Walid Abdullah, 23, says the state has come to suggest ending the lives of suspected COVID-19 cases. Global Voices uses a pseudonym, so it has asked to protect its identity. In a phone conversation with Global Voices, Abdullah explained that on May 13 he called the Daraa National Hospital in southern Syria to inform them of a suspected coronavirus case. When asked what steps he should take, the hospital worker who answered the phone said, “Shoot him, we have no cure for him,” according to Abdullah.
The call ended quickly. Obviously, the idea of shooting a patient suspected of having COVID-19 was out of the question. “Dying from COVID-19 is more honorable than setting foot in a public hospital,” Abdullah told Global Voices.
This heartbreaking testimony is corroborated by other sources. In a March 10 report published in the independent Syrian newspaper The Voice of the Capital, medical personnel from the Syrian Ministry of Health said that “a deliberate termination of operations is taking place at al-Mujtahid State Hospital in the capital, Damascus, for those believed to have the virus, they are given additional doses of medication (anesthesia). “
This statement also appeared on social media:
معلومات أنه في سوريا يتم تصفيه مرضى كورونا في مشفى المجتهد بعد ساعات من تشخيص المرض…
– Q هارون (@ Q56048602) March 11, 2020
The only country in which coronavirus has not spread is Syria, for various reasons: there is no tourism or air traffic from the countries of the world, and Iran withdraws its forces from Syria and does not send alternative forces. There are also the measures of the Syrian Ministry of Health. My words are confirmed in the report of the Health Organization country declared free of the virus.
Information that in Syria, coronavirus patients are terminated at al-Mujtahid Hospital hours after the disease is diagnosed …
In the same article, another person from the al-Mouwasat Hospital in Damascus was quoted as confirming this statement: “These terminations are carried out in complete secrecy, and are carried out by doctors dedicated to following up cases of suspected transmission of the virus” .
The Assad regime's desperate approach to dealing with COVID-19 resembles callous strategies used in the Assad war, which has left 586,100 dead, nearly 100,000 detained and forcibly disappeared, and 5.6 million refugees worldwide. world.
Assad-like media reflected the same mindset in his reports on the coronavirus. At the start of the outbreak, a reporter for Syrian state television station (al-Ikhbariyah Syria) made a threatening post on his personal Facebook page aimed at those challenging the quarantine:
“وهلأ شو رأيكن بالحكي ضروري ننصب قناصات لتنضب الناس ببيوتا ، لك افهمو يا ناسا ف ا ا ف ف ف ف ف ف ف في فف
A previously deleted Facebook post from Firas al-Ahmad says: “Now what do you think (of this idea)? Do we need to put snipers to force people to stay in their houses? Understand people, understand! ”
The post was later deleted, but a screenshot remains as evidence.
Virus outbreak and regimen survival
The Assad regime owes its survival to its key allies, which include Iran. With few allies in the region, Iran has also leaned toward Syria.
In February, Iran became one of the countries most affected by COVID-19 in the world and is likely a source of contagion in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, where Iranian troops have had physical contact through military cooperation. In addition, Iranian pilgrims and religious tourists continued to visit temples in Damascus until the first week of March, as reported by Zaki Mehchy, co-author of a study published in March by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
However, the Assad regime has had a policy of disinformation, deception and denial in terms of the number of deaths by COVID-19.
On March 13, in an interview with the official Syrian news channel, the Health Minister, Nizar Al-Yaziji, insisted on denying the existence of COVID-19 cases in Syria, and said: “Thank God, the Army Syrian Arab has cleaned the Syrian soil of many germs ”:
The Syrian Health Ministry announced its first case of COVID-19 on March 22, causing resentment and anger among Syrians who pointed out that the Assad regime lied and had a policy of denial. In an article posted on the independent website Syria 24 in response to Yaziji's claims, one citizen painfully noted, “Didn't you say in your statement that they had killed all the germs?”
However, the regime continued to report impossibly low names.
In a statement dated April 1, the Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces called on the international community to pressure the regime to reveal verified data on COVID-19 cases.
Highlighting the alleged existence of a large number of deaths, the coalition wrote:
”إن المعلومات الميدانية التي تصلنا ، تؤكد تفشي الفيروس بأعداد هائلة ، بحيث بات من الصعب السيطرة على هذا
Information from the field confirms that the virus spreads in large quantities, making it difficult to control the epidemic.
A broken health system
Acknowledging the pandemic is embarrassing for the Assad regime because it forces the authorities to admit that the health system is non-existent.
According to the LSE study, it is estimated that the maximum number of COVID-19 infections that the health sector can attend is only 6,500 in a country of 17.5 million inhabitants. If the deaths exceed this capacity, their war-worn health service is likely to collapse.
Throughout the war, military attacks have caused great damage to the health sector. Data from the World Health Organization and the Syrian Ministry of Health show that only 58 hospitals are fully operational out of the country's 111 public hospitals.
The data also noted that up to 70% of health workers have left the country as migrants or refugees, while the rest are often subject to restrictions, including military and political interference.
– الائتلاف الوطني السوري (@SyrianCoalition) May 9, 2020
Human rights report: The Assad regime killed 669 medical workers, including 83 who died as a result of torture.
COVID-19 amid ongoing humanitarian disaster
Perhaps the greatest challenge that many Syrians face is the accumulation of disasters: war, pandemic, and famine. The United Nations warned on June 26 that Syria is now facing an “unprecedented” hunger crisis, and that it needs urgent action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to the World Food Program, food prices rose 11% in May, compared to April, and 133% compared to the same period in 2019. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed this situation in a report from June 12:
# سوريا :
🔶نقص في معدات الحماية الشخصية
🔶أزمة جوع لا مثيل لها
🔶جيل جديد لا يعرف إلا الدمار والحرمان
🔶ونقص كبير في التمويل ..
– أخبار الأمم المتحدة (@UNNewsArabic) June 29, 2020
The number of Syrians caught between hunger and poverty is greater than ever, with the spread of COVID-19.
🔶Lack of personal protective equipment.
SinUnprecedented hunger crisis.
🔶A new generation that only knows destruction and deprivation.
🔶Significant lack of financing.
Read what United Nations agencies have said about the humanitarian situation in Syria
As the economic situation deteriorates, 28-year-old Ali al-Ahmed (also asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity) from the city of Daraa told Global Voices in a telephone interview that the “situation is bad, regardless of how hard you work, Even if you win 10,000 Syrian pounds (between one and five dollars), it is not enough ”. Ahmed said the majority have been forced to deprive themselves of many basic items because of exorbitant prices.
Between a health system broken by years of war and an economic situation that has left many Syrians impoverished, the current pandemic has pushed the country into unknown and catastrophic territory.