Syriaʹs crisis within a crisis – coronavirus could hit hard

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

By Anna Fleischer

These days, virtually every country in the world is drafting contingency plans as governments implement measures to protect their population from the further spread of the coronavirus. It was only the Assad regime that until a few days ago was still 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 regime said that it would close the border with Lebanon, even to returning Syrian nationals, as of 23 March. Goods traffic will continue, using drivers who will be subject to medical checks.

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 20,000 cases of coronavirus and 1,550 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.

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.

World Health Organisation logo – WHO (photo: AP)
Bürgerkrieg und Pandemie: Die Weltgesundheitsorganisation (WHO) warnt, das "fragile Gesundheitssystem" in Syrien sei wahrscheinlich nicht in der Lage, mit der Corona-Pandemie im Land fertig zu werden.

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.

The hygiene standards in the makeshift camps are not even remotely adequate. "You want us to wash our hands? Some people can't wash their kids for a week. They are living outdoors!" the Idlib director for the Maram Foundation for Relief and Development, Fadi Mesaher, told the New York Times.

No escape in Idlib

To date there is hardly even any possibility in Idlib to test for corona. Samples can be sent to laboratories in Turkey, but given the devastating conditions that have driven a million people to try to flee over the Turkish border in recent months, this is not much help.

Hedinn Halldorrson, a World Health Organisation spokesperson in southern Turkey, said on Wednesday that test kits are expected to arrive in Idlib next week, although it is not clear exactly when or how many. According to Halldorrson, the reason that the kits are only now being sent is because WHO distributes test kits to government agencies first – and the northwest is currently not under the control of the regime.

Refugee camp in Idlib (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Syriens Flüchtlinge als Hauptleidtragende der Corona-Krise: "Breitet sich das Coronavirus in Syrien weiter aus, werden die ohnehin schon knappen Hilfsgüter und eingeschränkten Dienstleistungen an die Grenze ihrer Kapazitäten gelangen", so die Hilfsorganisation "Care Deutschland". In den überfüllten Camps, die mit mangelnder Hygiene und einer fragilen Gesundheitsinfrastruktur kämpften, könne sich das Virus besonders schnell verbreiten, so die Hilfsorganisation.

Layla Hasso points out that there is also a lack of supplies such as masks, gloves and disinfectants. Moreover, many of the poorest have to leave their homes every day to earn a meagre living. "Our greatest fear at the moment is for the children whose families might get sick. Who will take care of these children if their parents are sick or even die?"

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.

Today my dad completes 2446 days in Assad detention centers.

While I'm trying to protect myself from COVID-19, I think of my dad and hundreds of thousands of detainees. Those have no access to a minimum level of medical care.

It's unbearable..#Covid_19#free_the_detainees

— Wafa Mustafa (@WafaMustafa9) March 12, 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.

[embed:render:embedded:node:39536]According to Amnesty International, "Detainees are already weakened by torture and other abuse, by neglect and fear 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 the disease 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 too 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."

Anna Fleischer

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor