Aid Groups Sound Alarm on Potential Chinese Coronavirus Outbreak in Syria

Passengers wear protective masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, upon their arrival by bus in Syria's Kurdish area from Iraqi Kurdistan via the Semalka border crossing in northeastern Syria on March 1, 2020. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP) (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Aid agencies in war-torn northwestern Syria began moving to contain the outbreak of the Chinese coronavirus across the region Monday amid growing fears that the large numbers of people and the ravaged health infrastructure make prevention an effectively impossible task.

Syria has yet to confirm any cases of the coronavirus, although the risk of an epidemic remains extremely high, particularly in the country’s northwest, where there are at least three million displaced people. Around one million of those people have arrived since December after the Russian-backed regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad launched its offensive on Idlib, leading to further displacement.

This risk was confirmed by World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson, who pointed out that Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond” to an outbreak. Part of the collapse of the region’s health system is because medical facilities are regularly targeted by the regime as a way of undermining the living conditions of the entire region.

Halldorsson told the AFP that as the WHO is unable to provide assistance from Assad-controlled parts of Syria, they are instead providing cross-border assistance to rebel-held Idlib through Turkey. She added that they are training health personnel while “laboratories in both Idlib and Ankara are being prepared and stocked to safely test and diagnose the virus.”

Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) shared the view that the situation in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country, was “especially ripe for a spread” of coronavirus.

“An outbreak would be devastating for thousands whose health status is already compromised due to lack of sufficient food, clean water and exposure to cold weather,” she said, adding that the IRC would work with “local health actors” to respond to any potential outbreak.

Last week, U.S. representative to the United Nations Kelly Craft and U.S. Special Envoy James Jeffrey visited Idlib and pledged $108 million in aid for Syrian civilians. Craft said the money was reserved for “the people of Syria in response to the ongoing crisis caused by Assad regime, Russian, and Iranian forces,” and it is currently unclear as to whether it will be employed for anti-coronavirus efforts, given many of the detection tools are very expensive.

Amid a rising number of cases across the Middle East, the Assad regime in Damascus also announced a one-month suspension in air and land travels with neighboring countries Jordan and Iraq, including visits intended religious tourism. A further two-month suspension has also been imposed on countries that have declared a coronavirus epidemic on their territory.

Medical experts have reported 114,220 coronavirus cases across 112 countries. The majority of cases are in China followed by South Korea, Italy, and Iran. At least 62,834 individuals have allegedly made a full recovery, while a further 4,005 have died as a result.

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