White Helmets Syrian Civil Defence Idib disinfect
A member of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the "White Helmets" disinfects a room at a physiotherapy centre in Syria's rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib, on July 11, 2020. A first case of coronavirus was recorded in northwest Syria on July 9, an opposition official said, reviving fears of disaster if the pandemic reached the rebel bastion's displacement camps. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: No sooner had Syrian officialdom lifted the COVID-19 lockdown than a surge of infections were reported in the capital, Damascus. Residents flooded government-run food distribution centres, with no social distancing, struggling to buy subsidised goods like sugar, rice, bread, and cigarettes. The economic collapse that Syria has witnessed over the past six months left them in financial ruin and most could no longer afford buying products at official market rates from spacious and sterilised supermarkets and shops. By July 10, the number of COVID-19 cases had risen to 394, with 14 deaths. According to the Health Ministry, most of these infections were carried into the country by returning Syrian citizens from faraway countries, most recently India. A plane carrying 250 students studying in New Delhi landed in Damascus on June 22.

Authorities acknowledge that the real number of infections might be much higher than that, however, given that Syria is incapable of conducting wide-range PCR tests, due to a cash-strapped health sector.

The kits that were sent by China earlier in the year have all been consumed, and no new assistance has reached Syria in months. There is no official number as to how many PCR tests are carried out in Syria, but they are certainly lower than neighbouring Lebanon, where 60,000 PRC tests were conducted on a population of 6 million, meaning around 10,000 per 1 million. There is also no census as to how many people reside in Syria today, after a decade of war and displacement.

Minimal measures

“Returning to lockdown is simply not an option,” said a Baath Party official who spoke to Gulf News on condition of anonymity. “People would rather die from coronavirus than from hunger. They need to go to work and we cannot force them to stay home.” Last month, the government lifted a ban on travel between Syrian cities and re-opened mosques, churches, restaurants, pools, gyms, and markets. It also allowed public transportation to return, with no social distancing measures.

Due to the economic situation, however, many shops in traditional markets have closed, mainly in the historic Al Hamidieh and Al Bzurieh Bazaars in the Old City.

The state continues to take minimal measures, like banning water-pipes at cafes, and quarantining buildings where COVID-19 cases have been reported. The most recent was the Uthman Bin Affan Mosque in the posh Kafarsuseh neighbourhood of Damascus, which was sealed-off on July 8, after family members of the mu’azzin were tested positive. Last week, the Justice Ministry enforced a punishment of up to three years in prison for any person who fails to report a suspected COVID-19 case.

The outbreak has crippled whatever momentum was left in the Syrian economy, causing entire establishments to close down, leaving thousands unemployed.

Economic meltdown

Meanwhile, the value of the Syrian pound continues to drop against the US dollar, reaching an all-time high of 3,000 SP in early June. Last September it stood at a mere 600 SP to the US dollar whereas in 2010, it was at a mere 45 SP. There are many reasons for that, including the ongoing war and the dollar shortage in Lebanon, both topped with gross mismanagement at a governmental level and America’s Cesar Act that went into effect last month.

Desperately trying to secure whatever source of income it can get its hands on, the Syrian government is going back in its records, demanding tax payments that date back to the 1970s. It recently issued a law forcing any citizen entering the country to exchange $100 USD at the government exchange rate, allowing the state to pocket the difference.

“Economic collapse in Lebanon lowers the demand for imports from Syria and leads to the firing and rising unemployment of Syrian workers in Lebanon,” said Nasser Saidi, a Lebanese economist and former minister. Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “This results in a decreased flow of remittances to Syria. The freezing of the deposits of Syrians (individuals and businesses) in Lebanese banks results in an inability to finance Syrian imports and trade through Lebanon.”

He added: “The financial, banking and fiscal crisis in Lebanon means increasing pressure in supplying/smuggling of fuel, wheat and other subsidised commodities into Syria.”

“The government criminalising dealing in a foreign currency is another reason for the collapse,” added George Saghir, a New York-based Syrian economist. Speaking to Gulf News he added: “Lebanon’s predicament and dollar shortages have of course had large impact, and so has the Rami Makhlouf saga,” a reference to the president’s cousin, who fell out with the state over tax evasion last April. That episode created shockwaves within the business community, prompting other businessmen to hold back their dollars, or smuggle them out of the country, leading to a crash of the Syrian currency.