Does the Syrian regime care about the Covid-19 crisis?

The pandemic has affected regions held by the regime and the rebels, but little is being done to tackle it

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Many parts of the world, including those that had successfully handled the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, are dealing with second waves of viral infections. Debates are raging in capitals around the world about the possibility of consequent, potential lockdowns, particularly with the new school year fast approaching.

One place where these debates are not happening is Syria, which is witnessing a surge of Covid-19 cases that could herald a fresh wave of suffering that hasn’t been seen since the fighting on the key fronts largely stopped back in March.

The number of coronavirus cases has risen greatly over the past month, even according to government and World Health Organisation figures, which greatly underestimate the number of infections. At the start of the pandemic, Syria reported only a handful of cases, a number that was scarcely believable given the virus was raging in Iran, which has a significant presence in government-controlled areas. Last month, cases were reported for the first time in Idlib, which is under opposition control, and where hundreds of thousands of internal refugees live in crowded conditions ripe for spread.

A Syrian doctor, on her own initiative, instructs children how to properly wear a mask during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis, in the displacement camp of Janid near the town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Idlib province, on July 26, 2020.   / AFP / Ibrahim YASOUF

Since then, hundreds of new cases have been reported in government-controlled areas, though it appears most of the data collection is happening in Damascus and its surroundings, offering at best a partial glimpse into the pandemic’s spread. More cases have been reported in Idlib as well as the Kurdish-controlled north-east, including among medical personnel, which probably means the virus has spread beyond the recorded cases. In total, as of Tuesday, Syria had recorded nearly 2,300 cases and close to 100 deaths.

A WHO report, dating from August 20, said the government had recorded 2,008 cases, in addition to 51 in rebel-controlled parts of Idlib and Aleppo. The north-east had recorded 280 infections. The actual number of cases is likely to be far higher, with many social media posts from locals pointing to deaths across the country. The official tally registered deaths due to the coronavirus in almost all the provinces.

The inexorable rise in cases is particularly alarming because the government does not appear to be taking any measures to limit social gatherings in heavily populated cities. Early in the pandemic, it imposed a partial lockdown, saying the country was too impoverished to afford a full one. But the absence of even partial measures this time around could lead to a catastrophe. College exams are being conducted with almost no precautions, and citizens are allowed to attend football matches and hold weddings. Hospitals are already overburdened by nearly 10 years of warfare – in addition to hundreds being destroyed, many doctors fled the violence over the years. With most Syrians living in poverty and no economic recovery in sight due to the Assad regime’s refusal to accept any concessions, ordinary civilians will suffer financially as the virus continues to spread.

In rebel-held areas, it is even harder to impose such measures given many live in poorly equipped, crowded camps, where social distancing or frequent hand washing are impossible to impose.

Syria has suffered half a million deaths and millions of refugees over a decade of warfare. The pandemic now threatens to upend even the current brief respite from fighting. As always, the Syrian regime is showing callous disregard for its people. The woes of this broken nation are not nearly at an end, and once again, seemingly nobody is willing to stop it.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada