The Syrian regime has always relied on security as a stick, and the emergence of the novel COVID-19 –although allegedly absent from the region– seems not to be the exception. Regardless of the serious spread of COVID-19 infections in Iraq and Iran, the regime continued to allow inbound flights without taking any preventive measures. This eventually resulted in the isolation of the region of Syeda Zainab, a famous religious destination for both Iraqi and Irani visitors.
This paper attempts to document the government measures taken in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in areas controlled by the regime, and to explain the ways in which the pandemic has affected civilians.
- Medical capabilities:
The first infection of the novel coronavirus-2019 was recorded in the last days of March. On April 21st, the Health Minister of the Syrian government indicated that after testing 3 850 samples –from which 2 115 were suspected cases– 1 898 cases tested positive for COVID-19, and 217 cases remained for follow-up. He further indicated that from the current number of COVID-19 infections, 39 cases had turned into complications, 3 resulted into deaths, and 6 others recovered. Additionally, the Health Minister denied the presence of any COVID-19 infections in other governorates, except for Damascus and its countryside.
As for the centers that have been equipped to provide healthcare to COVID-19 patients, the Syrian government announced the establishment of 19 quarantine centers and 14 isolation facilities distributed across the governorates, only as the media raised questions about their location, and particularly after the circulation of social media posts from some travelers who were calling for help, and disclosed the poor conditions of the quarantine facilities in Duwair.
For several years, there has been an absence of official information concerning the readiness of the health sector, which had been previously deteriorated by the adverse economic situation brought by the nearly ten-year war. So far, information about the assistance received to support the response of the COVID-19 outbreak has been confined to the Syrian regime. A government source stated that it had received 50 ventilators, 10 000 test kits, and 1 000 medical gowns from Russia, in addition to 1 000 test instruments from China. However, information regarding any other preventive equipment for the medical staff, the exact number of respirators available, or the current hospital, capacity remains unknown.
- Precautionary measures:
The Syrian government took early measures to prevent the spread of the novel COVID-19, even before any cases were officially registered. Such measures were gradually increased after the first case of infection was registered. The sequencing of the measures began with the closing of all schools, and then extending the shut-down to universities, markets, social services, and commercial activities, same as banning any foreigners from entering the country. Next, a twelve-hour curfew was imposed from 6 pm until 6 am during weekdays, and extended six more hours during the weekends, from noon to 6 am. Similarly, internal transportation was suspended, travel between governorates restricted, and movement between the countryside and the city center was only allowed with approval of the governor. In addition, a full lockdown was implemented in zones with confirmed cases, such as Syeda Zainab and Minin, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the areas.
Some productive sectors such as bakeries, grocery stores, and pharmacies are excluded from these measures, same as the military, security, and medical sectors.
Residents reasonably adhered to the evening curfew; however, problems began surging during the times when free movement was allowed. Similarly, the lack of preventive measures in food stores and bakeries was evident, as there has been overcrowding, and absence of social distancing and disinfection materials. Further, the adoption of a smart card as a mechanism to distribute bread and food supplies created additional distress, as large crowds of citizens gathered in attempt to obtain it.
This scenes can be largely explained by the pressing needs that the Syrian people face and the fear of the further expansion of what they call “the Corona Crisis”, as the current circumstances foretell the potential outburst of a major crisis if conditions remain without a decisive and effective response to the current crisis.
This situation has led different organizations, civil groups, and local initiatives to work towards limiting the spread of the epidemic, with initiatives such as the distribution of preventive materials and disinfection supplies. Additionally, there have been several awareness campaigns on social media, trying to inform the public about the correct prevention measures, and emphasizing the groups in need of additional support to be able to adhere to the home quarantine measures. Nonetheless, these efforts fall short as these organizations largely depend on small donations, which up to date remain insufficient to achieve the scope of their work. Further, these activities are often constrained due to restrictions in place by the Syrian government, and the specter of security risk in every activity they undertake. From all these groups, the Syrian Red Crescent remains as the organization with the largest room for maneuver in terms of providing relief and carrying out initiatives across several areas..
- The effects resulting from the quarantine measures:
Due to the disruption of some commodity markets, prices have doubled since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The lack of supervision from the Supply Department, and the existing monopoly of several goods, particularly those related to sterilization and cleaning materials, in conjunction with the spread of scams, has led to the occurrence of quarrels in bread distribution centers and stores to be seen as an ordinary phenomenon. Moreover, signs of discrimination against IDPs with the message “sons of the country first” have started to become something normal, same as increases in reports of domestic violence against women and children, and the spread of car and store robberies in several areas of Damascus and its countryside, pointing to the emergence of further crises and conflicts.
Further, distress and suffering among the Syrians has increased as the Syrian government fails to address the adverse economic situation. The regime has not taken any measures to try to justly compensate and aid the people who have lost their livelihoods, such as essential workers, patients, orphans, people with special needs, and the elderly; regardless they were the groups directly affected by the quarantine measures.
Testimony from R.H – male, displaced, and working on a vegetable cart: “If we haven’t died from Corona, we will die from hunger. With the current price of the muzzle, I could barely leave enough to feed my orphans, who have depended on me for their livelihood (3 daughters and a boy). God knows it is my responsibility – since the time of their father’s death – to feed them, calm their thirst, and pay house rent. There is no mercy in this country, I am sure that if I sit in the house and do not come down to work, and stop paying rent, my children will sleep on the streets, and sleep on the street will infect us with Corona, I mean, we are depending on God, may God bless us”
Moreover, the Syrian government has linked the COVID-19 crisis to the existing economic sanctions, and it has proceeded to issue calls for the lifting of the sanctions, under the argument it would allow it to effectively deal with this epidemic. Additionally, it calls for yielded results, since on April 22, the U.S.A announced it would reduce economic sanctions in some countries -including Syria, and despite it knows that the health sector is not directly targeted by those sanctions.
As for the pain that remains present in the homes of the Syrians since the beginning of the war, in relation to detainees and those who were forcibly disappeared, Decree 6/2020 has not provided them with an adequate solution. The ability to benefit from such decree has been limited to releasing those detainees who were already sentenced and could afford to pay the corresponding bail. Meanwhile, those detained in the security branches, those who were forcibly disappeared or whom the regime does not declare as detained, and those transferred to the field courts, are not included in the benefits of the Decree.
Based on the information laid out in this report, the Syrian Civil Platform recommends:
1- Providing access to all information related to the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in Syria, including containment plans.
2- Providing preventive tools and support for medical personnel.
3- Providing hospitals with ventilators and the necessary medical devices for an effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
4- Improving the measures taken by the Syrian regime by setting effective implementation and monitoring mechanisms.
5- Responding to the needs of the most vulnerable groups, such as essential workers, IDPs, chronic patients, and the elderly.
6- Monitoring markets to prevent monopolistic practices and any potential fraud.
7- Release of detainees as a way to protect them from the spread of the epidemic.
8- Enhancing measures to protect women and children from domestic violence.