LONDON: Iranian influence in Syria, namely through religious tourism and militias backing the Assad regime, likely aggravated the spread of coronavirus in the war-torn country, Syrian researchers said at a webinar on Tuesday.
“We have many Iranians working with the regime, and we also have Iranians coming to Syria for religious tourism,” said Zaki Mehchy, co-author of a research paper titled “COVID-19 pandemic: Syria’s response and healthcare capacity.”
He added: “The last estimate by the Central Bureau of Statistics is that Syria receives yearly 22,000 Iranian religious tourists who visit sites in Damascus. This flow didn’t stop until the beginning of March, so we believe that the free movement of militias and religious tourists contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Syria.”
His paper, which was presented at the webinar in conjunction with the London School of Economics’ conflict and research program, and with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), highlights Syria’s inability to deal with the spread of coronavirus.
After nine years of conflict, the country’s health sector is almost destroyed. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that only 64 percent of public hospitals are functioning, while 70 percent of medical staff have fled.
That, and difficulties in importing medical equipment and appropriate medications, have severely weakened the capacity to treat coronavirus.
Official infection statistics, which are supplied by Syria’s Ministry of Health, stand at 19 infections, with two deaths and two recoveries. However, these numbers are believed to be very conservative.
“This low number is due to, firstly, the lack of testing capacity in Syria. Syria is now conducting 100 tests per day, 50 percent of which are in Damascus, which has only four health centers able to conduct these tests,” Mehchy said.
“Northeast areas have no capacity at all, zero tests have been made, and while authorities there sent a request for testing kits from Damascus, the capital refused.”
The second reason is the lack of transparency from Syrian authorities, based on interviews from medical staff on the ground, Mehchy said.
“They received orders not to raise alarms about the recent surge in pneumonia-related deaths. Many people dying due to coronavirus symptoms, but security agencies ordered them not to mention this, especially to the media,” he added.
Mazen Gharibah, the paper’s other co-author, spoke of the heightened politicization of infections in the country, and the work of civil society groups in areas neglected by the regime and the WHO.
“There are catastrophic implications of the politicization of COVID-19 by the Syrian government, which gambles with the lives of millions of people outside its control. Civil society organizations in these areas are trying to increase social responsibility, but they’re limited,” he said.
“It seems the WHO is knowingly or unknowingly playing into the Syrian government’s narrative, which raises concerns over the WHO dealing with violent conflict settings.”
According to the researchers, the organization is sticking to its protocols of working with Syria’s Ministry of Health, which is dominated by security services and is not dealing with the country’s northwestern and northeastern regions.
“We can say that the security agencies are indirectly controlling the activities of the WHO, as they say they can only deal with the government in Syria,” Mehchy said.
Fighting in the country seems to have calmed down recently, but this is only temporary, Gharibah said.
“We’ve been seeing some indicators that there’s growing panic among Syrian (regime) forces and intelligence forces of a possible outbreak within their ranks due to working with Iranian militias, which is why we’re seeing the temporary calm, which I believe won’t last long,” he added.