Concern is growing over the potential spread of COVID-19 in Syria, as the first death due to the virus was reported on Sunday. A report from Syria’s Health Ministry stated that a woman died after being rushed to hospital. She was later discovered as being infected with the virus. The Syrian government has put the number of known cases in Syria at 10. However, there is belief that the actual total may be higher. These developments are a huge cause for concern due to the devastating impact a coronavirus outbreak would have in Syria.
Responses from the international community highlight the grave implications the rapid spread of coronavirus would carry for Syria. Mark Lowcock, the Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, stated that Syria was to expect a “devastating impact” in regard to COVID-19, with the low number of reported cases thus far merely being the “tip of the iceberg.” He told the United Nations Security Council: “All efforts to prevent, detect and respond to COVID-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system.”
In response to the threat of a major outbreak in Syria, the United Nations has called for an immediate nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, stated that in order to combat the growing danger of COVID-19 “the long-suffering Syrian people desperately need a sustained period of calm throughout the country respected by all parties.” An immediate ceasefire will allow focus to be directed to one common enemy faced by all of Syria – coronavirus. Continuous conflict will only serve to further overwhelm Syria’s already weakened health system, which would cause the virus to be even more fatal for the Syrian population.
It is indisputable that decisive action will have to be taken to prevent the rapid spread of the virus in Syria. As a result of nine years of civil war, the state is currently unprepared for such an outbreak. By the end of 2019, only half of Syria’s hospitals and health care systems were fully functional. Consequently, the probability that the virus will be unable to be contained is magnified significantly.
An outbreak of COVID-19 in Syria would cause widespread devastation, particularly in the northwest province of Idlib. One million internally displaced people are currently present in the province, sheltering in overcrowded refugee camps. There have been no reported cases of coronavirus within the refugee population of Idlib thus far. However, this may simply be due to a lack of available tests. There is significant concern that the virus would spread extremely rapidly throughout the refugee camps of Idlib, as the province is simply not equipped to deal with such an outbreak. Many hospitals in the region have been destroyed and there is a lack of specialized equipment required to adequately treat COVID-19.
Hani Tabeb, CEO of Relief Experts Association, told Vox: “We do expect that if the disease starts, it will spread rapidly.” The refugee camps of Idlib are hugely overcrowded and lack sufficient sanitation. As a result, preventing rapid transmission of the virus would be nearly impossible.
The outlook for Syria in the context of an outbreak of COVID-19 is dire. If countries with functional and comparatively sophisticated health care systems such as China, Italy and the United States have been overwhelmed by the virus, an outbreak will be disastrous in Syria – a country which is in the midst of a protracted civil war and with a ravaged health care system. In order to prevent complete devastation, the Syrian regime should act upon the United Nations’ call of implementing an immediate ceasefire.
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