Update: 20 new COVID-19 cases announced in NE Syria
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) case-load in Syria has significantly spiked in the last month, reaching 973 cases and 47 deaths across the country at the time of publishing, an over 200 percent increase from the beginning of July.
While the number of cases is not particularly high when compared to other neighboring countries like Iraq and Turkey—a little over 135,000 and 235,000 cases, respectively—the abysmal testing rate suggests that the actual number of cases is much higher.
The current testing rate in Syria, 907 tests per million people, puts Syria in seventh from last place for COVID-19 testing globally, just behind Mali.
However, the political fragmentation of Syria means that access to testing is not equal, with northwest and northeast Syria having extremely limited numbers of test kits. If treated as their own countries, northwest Syria and northeast Syria would have testing rates of 793 and 34.5 per million.
Currently there have been 38 and 50 cases of COVID-19 in the northwest and northeast, respectively.
In addition to the positive cases, over 21,653 people have been placed in medical quarantine for symptoms resembling those of COVID-19, according to the Syrian Ministry of Health. Of those placed in quarantine, 19, 906 have been released thus far.
The government’s transparency has also been questionable. Several sources in Damascus have told Syria Direct that the government has sought to suppress information about their relatives’ positive COVID-19 diagnoses.
“The problem is that there is no access to official information, the relevant ministries do not share numbers,” Mohamad Katoub, the policy and advocacy manager for the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, told Syria Direct.
“We’ve seen a media circus, such as statements that the army is fighting the virus, which is not possible for Corona… and this was from the Minister of Health,” Katoub added.
Several human rights monitors and news outlets, such as the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), have reported a much higher number of active cases and deaths with symptoms similar to those of the coronavirus.
In one instance, a source close to a Syrian civilian in Reef Dimashq province who tested positive for the coronavirus on March 31 told Syria Direct that the Syrian government was reluctant to confirm the test results.
The coronavirus is being treated “as if it’s a security issue,” the source told Syria Direct, adding that at first, the government “denies that the patient has [the virus], and then later diagnoses it after the patient has been mingling with his social circles.”
Such treatment has made tracking COVID-19 cases in Syria difficult, but numerous local sources and media outlets have told Syria Direct of cases throughout government-held territory which are not being taken into account in the official case-load.
Potential hot spots: IDP camps, prisons and foreign militias
The densely populated Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps in northwest and northeast Syria present a frightening scenario for the coronavirus to spread unabated due to the lack of medical infrastructure and supplies. Similarly, the approximately 100,000 Syrians locked away in government prisons and detention centers are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
“If the virus reaches detention centers and camps, it will [spread] quickly and there will be no way to resist it,” Katoub explained, adding that “conditions in detention centers do not even meet the minimum standards of public health.”
Still, even outside of camps in northwest Syria, “if residents in those areas decided to take measures to self-isolate, it wouldn’t be possible due to the large numbers of people there,” he said.
International human rights bodies—such as Amnesty International—have called for Damascus to release much of its prison population to prevent the spread of the virus among detainees. To that end, Bashar al-Assad issued a decree of general amnesty on March 22, which promises to free an unspecified number of detainees, but it is unclear to what extent the amnesty would apply to political prisoners, given that similar moves in the past were not actually carried out.
At the same time, testing in northwest Syria is limited, and there have only been 3,543 tests conducted thus far in the area.
Additionally, aid to the opposition-held territory has also been restricted due to constraints on organizations that also work in the government-held territory who fear having their permission to work in those areas revoked.
One such humanitarian organization told Syria Direct that Damascus denied their request to set up testing labs in IDP camps in northwest Syria, without giving a reason for the denial.
As for AA-held northeastern Syria, two people have died from COVID-19 at the time of publishing. On August 5, 20 new cases were announced, bringing the total caseload to 50.
While the total number remains relatively low, the sharp spike (an approximate 500 percent increase) in COVID-19 patients at the end of July and beginning of August is worrisome. In addition, low testing rates—only 138 tests have been conducted thus far as of July 25—suggest the true number of cases could be much higher.
Two of the 20 new cases announced in northeast Syria were from the al-Shahba region in Aleppo. The al-Shahba region is populated by 200,000 people, mostly IDPs from Afrin, and has limited access to adequate healthcare facilities. The population already suffers from malnutrition and other chronic diseases, according to a Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) document provided to Syria Direct.
According to the same document, the one hospital which services al-Shahba is 10 kilometers away and services various other parts of Aleppo. Its staff is mostly made up of volunteer nurses with limited-to-no formal training.
However, the ability to test for the coronavirus is also limited, as there are only two PCR machines in AA-controlled territories, which were sent by Iraqi Kurdistan on April 12.