The regional consequences of Syria's spiralling pandemic

If the beleaguered nation doesn't recover from Covid-19, neither will the Middle East

A girl wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic sells slippers at an open-air market in the city of Raqa in east central Syria on February 24, 2021. After a decade of unfathomable violence and human tragedy that has made Syria the defining war of the early 21st century, the fighting has tapered off but the suffering hasn't. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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Yesterday, the office of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad revealed that  he and his wife have tested positive for coronavirus. Safely ensconced in the capital, the pair reportedly are experiencing only mild symptoms. But in much of the rest of the country, where medical infrastructure has been shattered by an ongoing civil war and a crippling economic crisis, the experience of ordinary Syrians with Covid-19 is thought to be much more severe.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has not been sufficient data to establish the full extent of coronavirus's impact on Syria. Official WHO figures suggest that there have been a mere 16,000 confirmed cases and just over 1,000 deaths. But with a decade of civil war leaving 6 million people internally displaced, with many packed tightly in Spartan refugee camps (Al Hol camp alone holds 62,000), and depriving the country of resources for widespread testing, official figures are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.

(FILES) In this file handout picture released by the Syrian Presidency Facebook page on July 19, 2020, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma voting at a polling station in the capital Damascus, during the parliamentary elections. The Syrian president and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19 after experiencing mild symptoms, the presidency said on March 8, 2021. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Syrian Presidency Facebook page " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Bashar Al Assad and his wife are said to have contracted mild cases of Covid-19. AFP
Syrian borders with neighbouring states remain porous, exacerbating the risk of cases being exported

Medics have had to form underground healthcare networks in areas held by opposition militias, to avoid becoming targets of the Syrian army. Many doctors and nurses have fled the country. Many more have been killed. Hundreds of facilities have been bombed. PPE remains lacking in the clinics that do see patients. Amid the chaos, UN officials have spoken of the reluctance of many Syrians to seek assistance relating to Covid-19. And as The National has previously reported, vaccine conspiracy theories abound.

Syria's regional disintegration is a particularly significant barrier to any progress. Implementing successful containment protocols in rebel-held Idlib, in the country's north-west, is a far more distant prospect than doing so in Damascus, the seat of government power and control.

With some countries containing infections better than others and implementing travel restrictions accordingly, those that are weak and isolated, like Syria, are likely to become more so. For refugees and others whose safety relies on being able to relocate elsewhere in the region, quarantine protocols will pose a serious obstacle.

A patchwork pattern of recovery is not just a problem in Syria, but also in other nations that suffer from conflict and mismanagement. This affects  the entire region. Whatever policies are implemented to guard against direct arrivals from high-risk countries, there will always be gaps in the armour. Syrian borders with neighbouring states, particularly Lebanon, remain porous, exacerbating the risk of increasing infections and exporting cases to third countries.

The regional consequences of allowing Covid-19 to rage in certain countries are not limited to the health and humanitarian impacts. Despite the Middle East's political fragmentation, social, cultural and economic bonds have helped to build a strong sense of pan-Arab identity. Those bonds have always been helped by greater mobility, not less. The persistence of war has taken a significant toll on the region by preventing the movement of people and the forging of new economic links. The persistence of the pandemic in parts of the Middle East will only add to the challenges of the region. They must be tackled.