Coronavirus: Syria confirms first official case

President Assad has ordered a prisoner amnesty to limit the spread of the disease in the country’s crowded prisons

A Syrian Red Crescent member sprays disinfectant along an alley of the historic Hamidiyah souk (market) in the old city of Syria's capital Damascus on March 22, 2020, as part of efforts against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.  / AFP / LOUAI BESHARA
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The Syrian government has announced a case of the novel coronavirus after weeks of denying opposition reports that the disease was already spreading in the war-torn country.

Health minister Nizar Yaziji confirmed late on Sunday that authorities had recorded “a first case of the coronavirus in Syria in a person coming from abroad”.

He told journalists “the appropriate measures have been taken” to deal with the patient, a woman aged about 20”, state news agency Sana reported.

Mr Yaziji did not specify which country she had come from.

Aid agencies have warned that Syria’s ravaged health system would be unable to manage a major outbreak. Many hospitals and clinics have been destroyed and many people lack access to health care.

Damascus authorities have been stepping up measures in the past week to prevent a spread of the deadly virus as caseloads mount in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Schools, universities, restaurants, cinemas and events halls have been ordered to close and prayer gatherings are suspended.

Government offices have also been shut, or are operating with fewer staff, and transport between provinces is scheduled to halt from Tuesday.

On Sunday President Bashar Al Assad ordered the release of prisoners to relieve congestion in the country’s crowded jails.

After nine years of a war that has killed more than 380,000 people and destroyed Syria’s infrastructure, fears are high that a Covid-19 outbreak in the country would have devastating consequences, especially in areas outside regime control.

These include the last major rebel bastion of Idlib in the northwest, and the Kurdish-held northeast.

A World Health Organisation representative earlier this month warned that Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond” to what is now a pandemic.