Coronavirus outbreak in Syria’s Idlib a ‘matter of time’

Just a “matter of time”. That is what many healthcare workers in Syria’s Idlib province believe about the emergence of the new coronavirus in the war-battered northwestern region, according to a new report.

While it is difficult to predict exactly when a coronavirus case will be confirmed in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held area in the country, the majority of the medics cited in Tuesday’s report by Refugees International said they will be ill-prepared to cope with a severe outbreak.

“Idlib is surrounded by areas that all have been hit by the coronavirus,” report author Sahar Atrache told Al Jazeera.

“The closure of crossings notwithstanding, routes remain opened to commercial traffic, so a risk of a virus outbreak remains,” she said.

As of Tuesday, The Damascus-based Syrian government has reported 43 coronavirus cases including three deaths, in areas under its control.

Health officials around the world have issued a series of recommendations to avoid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, but the report noted that compliance with such guidance is simply “out of reach” for most of Idlib’s three million population.

“Staying at home, frequent washing of hands, keeping space between individuals, stocking on food, medications, and other essentials, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces,” are among the many issues that prevail in the region, the report said.

“Idlib is surrounded by areas that all have been hit by the coronavirus,” report author Sahar Atrache told Al Jazeera.

“The closure of crossings notwithstanding, routes remain opened to commercial traffic, so a risk of a virus outbreak remains,” she said.

As of Tuesday, The Damascus-based Syrian government has reported 43 coronavirus cases including three deaths, in areas under its control.

Health officials around the world have issued a series of recommendations to avoid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, but the report noted that compliance with such guidance is simply “out of reach” for most of Idlib’s three million population.

“Staying at home, frequent washing of hands, keeping space between individuals, stocking on food, medications, and other essentials, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces,” are among the many issues that prevail in the region, the report said.

Nearly one million people were forced to flee the clashes, with many amassing in the already overcrowded camps near the sealed border with Turkey.

According to the report, titled A Crisis on Top of a Crisis: COVID-19 Looms over War-Ravaged Idlib, it is inside the many informal camps that the situation is most concerning.

Despite efforts to launch awareness and sterilisation campaigns by volunteers from Syria’s Civil Defence, a search-and-rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, hygiene inside these camps is “very poor”, it said.

“Given the living conditions inside the province, prevention and early detection of patients are among the best strategies to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in Idlib,” Atrache said.

On average, civilians inside the province have been displaced “between five and ten times” due to bombardment and recurring government offensives, the report noted.

A Russian-Turkish ceasefire in the area has helped maintain relative calm since March this year, but the recent deal “hardly guarantees an end to violence”, it said, adding that previous ceasefire efforts have quickly faltered.

Still, the pandemic might be playing a role in “maintaining the relative calm in the province”, according to Atrache.

“Turkey, Russia and Iran are all struggling to contain the spread of the virus at home,” she noted. But, for many inside the province, “it is a question of when not if violence will resume”.

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