As Syria begins to officially register its first Covid-19 fatalities, how long before an already gargantuan humanitarian tragedy plumbs new depths?
The Syrian health ministry reported the loss of one woman on Sunday 29 March, with a further fatality the following day. To date there have been around two dozen recorded cases, with experts estimating a far higher level of infection. A lack of clarity on the virus’ spread in Syria is perhaps unsurprising given the lack of verifiable information available in conflict areas. However, we can assume that the virus poses an ever more menacing threat across the region.
One thing is certain – that if, as seems inevitable, the virus permeates deeper into civilian and refugee communities, the toll of this harrowing conflict will resound all the more damningly. With reports of children dying from exposure in the moonscape ruins of Idlib province, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Mark Lowcock warned of the “devastating impact on vulnerable communities across the country” set to occur should Coronavirus continue to spread. “Syria’s health services are extremely fragile,” he stated, with only “around half of its hospitals and primary healthcare centres” fully functional at the end of 2019. Furthermore, the fundamental preventative measures designed to stem transmission, namely social distancing and good hygiene, are nigh impossible to achieve within the Syrian warscape. Relief efforts already limited by fighting and the complex politics of the conflict are now doubly impeded, as they seek to circumvent travel restrictions and the real risk that they could be responsible for spreading the virus amongst those they are trying to aid.
In the neighbourhoods, informal settlements and refugee camps inhabited by Syrian refugees, both within the country and in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the chance of viral transmission is high. Tented camps are packed closely together with shared water sources and poor sanitation systems. Multiple families are living in small, poorly kept apartment blocks. There is little hope for effective social distancing when this dispossessed and traumatized mass of humanity exists in such conditions. Refugees in camps (just 10%) are now unable to go out and work, limiting their ability to afford food, which is only provided by the UN to those holding official refugee status. Similarly, those living in ‘private’ accommodation face an inability to pay what are often racially inflated rent tariffs. With starvation or homelessness looming once again, a sense of hopelessness for these refugees appears more intractable than ever.
The UNHCR and UNRWA have pledged to cover costs accrued by refugees who contract Covid-19, but this provision is again caveated against the need for official refugee status. Of the 1.5 million Syrians residing in Lebanon alone, 40% lack UN registration and are thus deemed ineligible for food or medical relief. A discriminatory bias towards refugees is also undermining the fight against Covid-19. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has noted instances of Syrian refugees in Lebanon experiencing far harsher restrictions on their movements than native Lebanese, with strict curfews and limitations on the hours allowed for acquiring essential goods. HRW claims that these restrictions, enforced with threats of identity documentation forfeiture, are in contravention of human rights and are misleading refugees into believing they cannot seek medical existence for fear of sanction. All authorities sheltering refugees have a responsibility to provide for their basic health needs and this must remain the case in combatting the Covid-19 pandemic. Holding these authorities to account is now more vital than ever if any shred of humanity is to be left salvageable from the rubble of Syria’s disastrous civil war.