Idlib reports first Covid-19 case and braces for fresh disaster
Healthcare workers in Syria’s last rebel-held province are bracing for fresh disaster after the overcrowded and poverty-stricken area confirmed its first case of Covid-19.
A doctor in his 30s working at Bab al-Hawa hospital in Idlib near the Turkish border asked to be tested after displaying symptoms, the local health authority said on Thursday evening.
His role as a healthcare worker means he is almost certainly not the only case. The doctor and those who have come into contact with him have been tested and are in self-isolation, and the hospital has been temporarily closed. All routine medical procedures in Idlib have been cancelled.
Idlib’s 3-million-strong population has been dreading a seemingly inevitable outbreak of the coronavirus in a province where 1.1 million people are living in tents and makeshift accommodation. The healthcare system, decimated by years of war and bombing campaigns carried out by Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies, is already struggling to deal with malnutrition and other diseases. .
There is only one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing machine in the province, purchased by a local NGO. The World Health Organization (WHO) has not sent any machines to Idlib or the Kurdish-held north-east, and only five to regime-controlled Syria.
A total of 153 ventilators and 148 beds in intensive care units are available for coronavirus patients across Idlib, which aid agencies have warned leaves the area desperately ill-prepared.
Dr Fadi Hakim, director of advocacy for the Syrian American Medical Association (SAMS), said: “According to the WHO preparedness and prevention plan we must have three hospitals dedicated to coronavirus patients and 30 community isolation centres. So far we have only three community isolation centres and one hospital, so we are still a long way from implementing the plan.”
SAMS has ordered medical supplies and protective clothing and WHO has promised 6,100 testing kits but they are yet to reach Idlib, Hakim added.
Government areas of Syria have reported 372 coronavirus cases and 14 deaths, and the UN has detected six cases and one death in the north-east. Experts have warned for months that the true figures across the country are probably much higher.
Over the course of Syria’s war, Idlib has become the last refuge of opposition fighters and civilians who have fled Assad’s advance.
Rebel infighting has led to the emergence of the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as Idlib’s dominant force. In March, the area was spared from a brutal regime offensive after a ceasefire was brokered by Russia and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups.
The spread of the disease will be difficult to control if it reaches Idlib’s chaotic displacement camps.
Jamal Abu Ayoub, the director of Telmans camp, which has housed 160 families since February, said his team had taken measures to protect residents but they faced immense challenges.
“We have limited travel in and out of the camp, held awareness sessions and we are trying to limit gatherings inside, but we barely have any masks or sanitiser. We lack even basic materials,” he said.
“When we first heard about coronavirus, we didn’t take it seriously. We thought it was like regular flu. But when we found out the numbers of casualties were so high we got scared,” said Mohammed Kaddour, a teacher living with his wife and three children in a camp near the town of Sarmarda.
“We can’t prevent it because we live in tents adjacent to each other. Any measures we take will be weak because there is so much poverty: everyone has to go out for work. There are those that say: ‘I would rather die of coronavirus because it’s better than starvation’”.
The miserable situation in Idlib and the surrounding countryside may be compounded after a UN security council vote on Friday over continuing the delivery of humanitarian aid from two border crossings from Turkey.
On Thursday, Russia introduced a rival draft resolution that would authorise just one border crossing instead of two for the next year, in effect cutting off about 300,000 people trapped by frontlines from receiving UN aid.
Russia and China have repeatedly used their vetoes as permanent members of the security council to stymie aid to areas outside of Assad’s control.
“The [coronavirus] news underscores that the UN security council must move immediately to reauthorise cross-border humanitarian assistance into north-west Syria via both of the existing crossing points,” said Hardin Lang, vice-president for programmes and policy at Refugees International.
“Humanitarians will need to move quickly to reinforce efforts to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus among millions of people already in need of humanitarian assistance. Russia and China must stop playing politics with the lives of Idlib’s inhabitants.”
Also on Thursday, the UN counter-terrorism chief said his office received information that 700 people have recently died in two overcrowded and disease-ridden camps in north-east Syria that are home to about 70,000 women and children with connections to Islamic State.
Lack of food and medicine and outbreaks of tuberculosis had contributed to the dramatic mortality rates, Vladimir Voronkov said, creating ripe conditions for continued radicalisation.