The Syrian regime on Sunday confirmed its first officially-recognized case of coronavirus infection. According to Health Minister Nizar Yazigi, the patient is “a person coming from abroad.”
Yazigi identified the patient only as a woman in her twenties. He did not specify what country she came to Syria from.
“Appropriate measures have been taken to deal with the case,” the health minister promised.
According to Syrian state television, which interviewed Yazigi by phone, the coronavirus patient did not display any symptoms upon arriving in Syria, but was tested because she came from “an area where there are infections.”
Outside observers generally doubt Syria has truly avoided coronavirus infections until now, and the Syrian government has not been acting like it believes those claims either. On Sunday, the Syrian Cabinet suspended all public transportation, both within and between provinces, expanded quarantine centers, ordered the construction of new diagnostic laboratories, and made plans for the delivery of emergency supplies.
Syrian citizens began stockpiling fuel and food on Monday after the first official coronavirus diagnosis, with lines forming outside banks, grocery stores, and gas stations in Damascus. Many of the closely-packed small shops in Damascus were closed by government order. Border crossings to Lebanon and Jordan were scheduled to be shut down on Monday afternoon, while Damascus International Airport was closed to commercial traffic.
Al Jazeera reported on Monday that a ban on private transport services would go into effect in the evening, while schools, parks, restaurants, and even military conscription were shut down on Monday morning.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced a prisoner amnesty on Sunday, somewhat similar in concept to Iran releasing prisoners from its crowded and unsanitary jails to slow the spread of coronavirus through the prison population.
Syria has long been viewed as a potential coronavirus nightmare because its health care system was ravaged by a decade of civil war, fighting remains ongoing in some provinces, much of the population has been displaced into harsh refugee camps, and a large population of Iranian fighters is working with the Syrian military. It would be politically difficult for Assad to expel or isolate the Iranians, where bad decisions by government officials and religious authorities unleashed one of the deadliest outbreaks of the Wuhan virus to date.