Covid-19 in Syria: on the brink of catastrophe

17 September 2020, 13:00

While it is not easy to get exact figures about the spread of Covid-19 in North-East Syria, we do know that confirmed cases are increasing and that the healthcare facilities will not be able to cope with the looming peak of the pandemic.

To date, 3,576 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in the region, which has a population of 3,000,000. But that could be a gross underestimation: very few tests have been carried out and the results are not always reliable. There could be hundreds more unconfirmed Covid-19-related deaths.

To get a better idea of the situation, we must consider the numbers: by September 12th, 1.6% of all swab tests that were carried out in Italy, were positive. In North-East Syria, the equivalent number was 34%.

This means that there could be many infected people in the region who have not been tested, and are therefore unknowingly spreading the virus.

Meanwhile the number of confirmed cases continues to rise and prevention measures are just not enough to contain the expected pandemic peak. Meanwhile, doctors and health workers are starting to fall ill, which increases the risk of infection and further hinders the management of clinics and hospitals.

The situation is critical in the region’s main towns – Hassakeh, Derik, Membij and Tabqa – which have the highest population density and also the most confirmed cases. But it is in the refugee camps which currently host hundreds of thousands of people, that the risk of an uncontrollable crisis increases every day.

In these camps, there is no guarantee of access to running water and it is virtually impossible to respect social distancing rules. In the Al Hol and Areesha camps, where we have been running our clinics for years, lockdown was imposed for a few extremely difficult days, given that here everybody lives in tents and not houses.

The crisis is being tackled with great determination and courage by the local health workers and the Autonomous Administration authorities, but the healthcare facilities here are inadequate: 9 years of conflict have left much of the country in ruins and the Turkish invasion in October 2019 inflicted further damage to the network of clinics and hospitals which we had been gradually rebuilding.

 Currently, these clinics cannot be fully operational as they are subject to frequent quarantines and disinfection, together with a worrying decline in admissions due to concerns about Covid-19 infection.

We have seen similar patterns in Italy, throughout Europe and around the world, but in an unstable and war-torn country like Syria, the challenge of coping with a pandemic is even greater.

 Until we opened the first dedicated Covid-19 semi-intensive care ward in Hassakeh Hospital in collaboration with our long-standing regional partner, the Kurdish Red Crescent, in April, there was only one ventilator and one intensive care bed in the whole region.

Un Ponte Per is equipping 3 more Covid-19 wards in hospitals in Derik, Membij and Taqba, the region’s main cities, where there are currently no other humanitarian organisations on the ground and where doctors expect to see the greatest rise in cases over the next few months.

The wards will be operational by late September, providing 40 intensive care beds and 20 sub intensive care beds, ready to treat all cases of Covid-19, ranging from mild to serious. Un Ponte Per is also running training courses for the health workers – doctors, nurses and anaesthetists who will be facing a crisis like the one we faced here, but with dramatically different facilities. We are  offering online courses whereby Italian male and female doctors can share experience and advice with their Syrian colleagues. This same approach proved very successfully when we renovated part of the Raqqa Hospital and provided remote training to Kurdish Red Crescent health-workers in collaboration with the Policlinico Gemelli Hospital in Rome.

Today, more than ever, our focus must be prevention. Because in regions with inadequate healthcare systems and limited access to medicine, it really is the only option. We have been working for many months on hard-hitting awareness-raising campaigns in the clinics we run in refugee camps in collaboration with the Kurdish Red Crescent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected and continues to affect every single one of us. But it hasn’t been the same experience for everyone. Handling this kind of crisis was extremely difficult even for countries with robust healthcare systems, fully trained doctors, adequate equipment and medicine, intensive-care units and fully operational hospitals. It is hard to imagine the suffering of people living in war-torn countries, in the desolation of refugee camps or with ill-equipped hospitals.

But we can work together to reduce their suffering. Because the crisis will only be over when it is over for everybody.

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