Syrian people to suffer again amid regime’s virus denial
For a brief time last week, the Syrian regime’s official media was running with the totally false story that Queen Elizabeth II of Britain had contracted the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). One can guess why the Syrian propaganda machine might wish to spread this nonsense. It might be an error but, more likely — learning from their Russian patrons — it is fake news used to distract from the more serious issues facing Syria. The COVID-19 outbreak has the Syrian regime truly scared.
The reality is that the regime is engaging in a major cover-up on the coronavirus outbreak. It had acknowledged only nine cases early this week, the first of which was announced as recently as March 22. Officially, one Syrian has died. None of this is credible and it is not borne out by reports from Syrians on the ground. It is illegal for a Syrian to contradict the official figures, as this would be spreading “false news.” Syrians have told how the regime’s security services have forced them to delete social media posts and not tell a soul about any possible coronavirus case.
Why the suppression and lack of transparency? It is, after all, not the fault of the Syrian regime that there is a coronavirus pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill and infected nearly every country. Speculation in Syrian circles is, as ever, plentiful. The most realistic argument is that Damascus fears it will be blamed for continuing its travel links and military and security cooperation with Iran when the outbreak there is so acute. It needs Iranian support, so it can’t sever the country’s Iranian links. Iranian military flights are reportedly still coming in to Damascus.
For a regime in semi-denial of the virus, the large number of “precautionary” measures it has taken is noticeable. Cars equipped with disinfectant sprayers tour the cities. A nationwide curfew has been imposed from 6pm to 6am, although this makes the streets more crowded in daylight hours. All schools and universities are closed. Travel between provinces is banned, as are journeys between the centers of cities and rural areas.
But the virus has a huge head start on the regime and the Syrian health care system. The chances of it overwhelming the country are high. Syria has yet to exit the nine years of conflict and crisis that have smashed the country. If even advanced health care systems are struggling to cope, imagine what it is like for one that is in tatters, not least due to Syrian regime bombing. According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 500 attacks against health facilities in Syria since 2016. Only 58 of Syria’s 111 public hospitals are fully functioning, with the total available number of intensive care beds with ventilators estimated at just 325. Many health care professionals have been killed or fled during the war. Research indicates that Syria has the capacity to treat just 6,500 cases, but with huge variations from province to province. For example, Deir Ezzor province has not one single intensive care bed available, and Aleppo province only has five.
Syria has a young population. This may help counter the virus’s spread, but the people are exhausted by conflict and lack access to proper health care and decent nutrition. The economy is in its worst state ever, with many unable to buy a bar of soap to wash their hands, let alone any form of protective equipment. Only the rich can buy face masks.
Basic compliance is openly flouted. Huddles of people queue at bakeries or for their salaries from government offices. Syrians pay for nearly everything in cash. Even a government video shows a taxi driver taking a patient to hospital being interviewed by a policeman not wearing gloves. Part of this is due to a lack of public awareness; itself a consequence of the regime’s virus denial.
If even advanced health care systems are struggling to cope, imagine what it is like for one that is in tatters
Several categories are of particular concern. The areas outside the regime’s control, such as Idlib, are highly vulnerable. Reports suggest that symptoms are being shown among Idlib’s camps for internally displaced people. Here you get 10 to 12 people sharing a tent. Hygiene and social distancing is impossible. Should it break out here, people may flee once again in terror, thereby spreading the virus further, including outside of Syria.
Another worrying category is the hundreds of thousands of prisoners inside the regime’s overcrowded jails. The regime has announced an amnesty for prisoners, but this does not include those incarcerated for terrorism offences — the overwhelming majority.
But the regime’s security chiefs may be most concerned about the armed forces, the security services and the police. Typically, they cannot self-isolate and are at risk of considerable contact with Iranian forces. They constitute the bedrock of the regime’s power base. This may explain why the Ministry of Interior has just announced that soldiers who have served for seven years can be released from service.
All of this means that the Syrian regime could be overwhelmed. Loyalists are already showing mixed signals. On one level, many have rallied around the government because they appreciate the massive emergency measures. At the same time, others seethe at the lackluster regime response that has put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. Should the outbreak become catastrophic, it could threaten the very survival of the regime.
Many might celebrate that given the regime’s appalling record. But it would come at a price, with hundreds of thousands infected and many dying, as well as the virus spreading even further in the region. A cease-fire that extends beyond the shaky one in Idlib is vital, as is a carefully targeted form of sanctions relief that removes all bureaucratic obstacles to supplying medical and protective equipment. The prospects of this seem very distant, so Syrians could have yet another annus horribilis in front of them.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech