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Sunday, 21 April 2024
Why Syria is so unprepared for COVID
James Denseiow

How does a authoritarian police state almost a decade into the most devastating civil strife in its history cope with a deadly pandemic that has put the world on its knees? Not very well is the answer but in its own unique way and filtered through its own unique disfunction.

The good news for Syria earlier on in the year was that unlike New York or London, it wasn’t home to a global transport hub and wasn’t seeing a large-scale entry of infections through its borders. The perverse advantage of being one of the most dangerous countries on the planet meant that with people staying away, so did COVID.

Yet such is the infectious nature of a disease that we now know can be transmitted via aerosol infection, that it was only a matter of time for COVID to come knocking on the doors of the war weary country. The first official case was reported on March 22nd and today Syria faces the perfect storm of regional economic collapse, prolonged and continuing conflict and now COVID.

In the US when the country reached the grim milestone of 50,000 dead the New York Times published a frontpage with as many of their faces as possible. In Syria the dead have no such access to status and recognition. Nobody knows how many have died in the war to date, nobody knows how many died in the country’s notorious prisons. In a country where death is such a secretive and unknown affair, why expect any difference in the approach to COVID?

Recent reports of the virus beginning to spike in the country are founded on a triangulation of available data rather than via a transparent and effective public health reporting system. Of course, the presence of the virus in the country is very much filtered through the lens of who controls that particular part with very difference scenarios emerging in the northwest and the northeast from the rest of the country.

In Regime controlled Syria current testing levels, a crucial tool in the armoury of a pandemic response, are pitifully low. Indeed, current testing at 907 tests per million people puts Syria in 7th from last place globally, just behind Mali. With testing levels so low it is almost impossible to track symptomatic cases let alone the large numbers of display no symptoms.

As countries like the UK discovered, if you lose sight of the rate in which the virus is increasing through testing, then you start to see it instead at the more critical level of emergency health care. Reports are beginning to emerge of a trait that was seen in early affected countries like China and Italy; medics dying.

Seven medics have reportedly died of the virus in the last two weeks, and whilst official tallies show Syria at only 46 deaths from the virus, obituaries increasingly reveal the true scale of crisis. A similar attempt to repress the real cost of the virus is seen to the east in Syria’s close ally Iran. The number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is nearly triple what Iran's government claims, a BBC Persian service investigation has found. The government's own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with Covid-19 symptoms up to 20 July, versus 14,405 reported by its health ministry.

The Regime’s secretive approach to rule is an anathema to the transparency and public information required to collectively conquer a virus like COVID-19. Instead their preference has been for demonstrative policies, such as the widespread disinfecting of neighbourhoods in Damascus from the start of the week. Yet we shouldn’t confuse action from being effective and without an approach to locking down, social distancing, adequate protective equipment and of course tracking and testing then the exponential increase of the virus is likely to continue as it has elsewhere.

Such is the urgency around the virus taking hold in the country that even the Syrian Ministry of Health is now warning of the need for "extreme caution", which is probably as critical as they can be before people start going missing.

Nabough al-Awa, dean of the medical school in the Damascus University, has said that all rooms in government-run hospitals are full and new arrivals in critical condition have no immediate access to intensive care units. When patients can’t access full hospitals the health care system of a country is officially overwhelmed, and mortality numbers start to leap up in ways that even the Regime may struggle to repress.

by : jamse danselow