Syria, Burdened by War’s Destruction, Now Faces CovidDecember 19, 2020
Syrians living in bomb-scarred cities have long had to deal with a kneecapped health system that can barely handle the basic needs of the country’s exhausted population. Now, like the rest of the world, Syrians are facing the coronavirus. And detected cases are skyrocketing.
The U.N. Security Council, which met on Wednesday to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, reported that cases had more than quadrupled in October and November compared with the previous two months.
Syria has no organized independent data collection, and government data and propaganda tend to obscure the country’s difficulties. For instance, the Syrian Ministry of Health reported a total of 8,580 infections as of Dec. 9, while the Security Council, relying on reports from inside the country, counted at least 30,000 at the start of the month. Many say the true numbers are likely far greater.
“There is no doubt the Covid-19 infection and mortality rates for Syria are vastly undercounted and underreported,” said Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights and a professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan.
The undercounts, coupled with the disastrous state of Syria’s hospitals after a decade of civil war and a severe lack of medical professionals, leave millions of people at risk of grave consequences if they become infected. Emergency doctors make up just 0.3 percent of the country’s public hospital workers, according to the World Health Organization.
“For years, the Syrian government and its Russian allies have attacked health workers and facilities as a strategy of war, resulting in a battered health system ill equipped to respond to the pandemic,” Dr. Heisler said.
Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Physicians for Human Rights has documented 595 attacks on health facilities in Syria. The group attributed about 90 percent of them to the Syrian government or its Russian allies, and has also recorded the killing of 923 medical professionals.
Some parts of Syria do not have access to clean water, sanitation or power. Widespread privation means that masks and soap come last on shopping lists. Conditions in camps for Syrians displaced by the war are often even worse, with open sewage and overcrowding fostering the spread of disease.
“Social distance is a fantasy in a camp, but if we’re going to prevent a massive outbreak, we need to make it a reality,” Kieren Barnes, the Mercy Corps country director for Syria, said in March.
In order to receive care, many coronavirus patients have had to pay bribes for hospital admission and oxygen supplies, according to a Physicians for Human Rights report released on Wednesday.
Dr. Heisler pointed to the stoppage of cross-border aid, inequitable access to health care and severe disparities in the government’s distribution of humanitarian supplies to explain why the health system’s “ability to respond to the pandemic as well as to other diseases is tremendously compromised.” There is also little testing capacity and a shortage of personal protective equipment.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever know the true scale of it,” a humanitarian worker focused on southern Syria told the group’s researchers. “The toll has got to be in the tens of thousands, if not higher. Every bed is full.”