Damascus: Over the past week, Syrian authorities have taken a series of preventive measures against coronavirus, insisting meanwhile that the pandemic has not yet reached the war-torn country.
The first of these measures was an early March closure of borders with both Jordan and Iraq, followed by Lebanon on March 15. Coronavirus victims stood at 84 in Jordan, 154 in Iraq, and 177 in Lebanon, three indicators that if it hadn’t already arrived and spread, the deadly virus was standing at Syria’s doorsteps. Flights were subsequently suspended with Iran, where there are more than 20,000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus.
Warm relations with Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon were particularly worrying for Syrians, since thousands of nationals from all three countries have been living and working in Syria since 2011, mostly as fighters on the Syrian battlefield.
Syrian opposition websites accused the Ministry of Health of concealing the truth, saying that coronavirus had already reached Syria through Iranian fighters and members of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). They speculated that 22 cases had been quarantined in the Sayida Zeinab shrine in the vicinity of Damascus.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) supports this claim, adding that coronavirus cases were recorded in Tartous, Latakia, and Homs, an accusation that has been repeatedly denied by the Syrian government.
Pro-Hezbollah journalist Rafik Lutf also added that coronavirus had reached Syria, saying that the Health Ministry took “no measure, except for silence”. On March 10, a state-run hospital in Damascus said that one person was admitted on suspicion of coronavirus, but his tests proved negative. Three other cases were reported as negative on March 17.
Private medical labs are charging 100,000 Syria pounds (Dh367) for the coronavirus test, which is far higher than what ordinary Syrians can afford. The government is doing it for free at 1126 centres in 57 state-run hospitals, all on “high alert” since mid-March.
As the month advanced, the measures became more drastic, starting with a two-week shut-down of all schools, universities mosques, churches, theatres and cinemas. Condolence services were then cancelled, with obituary notices carrying a new line: “Your condolences will reach us through prayer for our beloved.” Mosques were allowed call people to prayer (adhan) but prohibited from receiving worshipers.
Cafes, bars, and restaurants witnessed a phased closure, first through the banning of shishas, followed by a complete closure starting March 18. Five-star hotels were allowed to keep one restaurant open, catering to the needs of guests only.
Parliamentary elections scheduled for April 13 were also called off, and so were all spring festivals, concerts, and shows. Courts were then closed until early April and government agencies slashed 40 per cent of staff.
That still isn’t enough said Ahmad Mansour, a Damascus-based lawyer. “All court records and cases are stacked in very unhealthy conditions, gathering layers of dust” he told Gulf News. We need to sterilise the courts, their closets, corridors, and all files related to them.”
The measures are unpopular for most people, however, who are particularly upset by the closure of mosques and shisha cafes. “Its not right to close down the cafes, without compensating those who work there,” said Abu Said, a shisha worker in the Shaalan neighbourhood. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “We don’t have a monthly salary, we get paid by the day and rely on tips to make a living. The price of everything has gone through the roof. How can I meet the needs of my little children?”
In government-held areas, ten years of international isolation might have been a blessing in disguise for society, given that there are no foreigners coming into the country, no tourists, and no flights. Damascus International Airport only offers flights to a handful of destinations around the world, and very few Syrians can afford them, either for lack of visas or financial means to go abroad.
The situation is more alarming in the northwestern city of Idlib, the last stronghold of the armed opposition. Unlike Damascus, which has a strong centralised authority, Idlib is run by local city councils, military groups, and is riddled with foreign fighters and Turkish forces, who operate 25 checkpoints in its countryside. In Turkey itself, nine people have died from the virus, and at least 150 have been infected by it.
“Those Turkish-backed fighters reside within civilian areas in Idlib,” said Syrian political analyst Amer Elias, which is very unsafe in light of coronavirus. Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Turkey has made no effort to clean the area, and is transporting them to faraway battlefields, like Libya, raising the threat of coronavirus everywhere.”
Idlib closed down its schools and mosques for one week, starting March 14. Since the healthcare system is outdated and understaffed, suspected coronavirus cases are being transported to Turkey for monitoring. The province is in total chaos, after 960,000 people were uprooted from their homes over the past six months and forced into overcrowded shelters and camps, either in the city itself or closer to the Syrian-Turkish border.
According to the United Nations, 81 per cent of the displaced people are women and children, and the remaining 19 per cent are elderly men, with a higher chance of catching coronavirus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) adds that 80 health services in the Syrian northeast have completely suspended their activity since March 4, making it impossible to combat the virus, if it reaches areas controlled by the armed opposition.