04/04/2020, 17.27
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Fighting the COVID-19 and political opportunism

by Pierre Balanian

Despite nine years of war, Syria seems to be most effective at dealing with COVID-19. The opposition has accused the government of hiding the real extent of the outbreak, a claim dismissed by the WHO. An Emirati prince called Assad to offer friendship and help. Some cities are on a lockdown. The epidemic is monopolising hospital services. In Aleppo, ventilators are made locally.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – An earthquake rattled residents along the coasts of Lebanon, northern Syria and southern Turkey. The quake, which lasted a few seconds, measured 4.7 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was 65 kilometres from the Syrian city of Latakia. No damage was reported.

In Syria, the quake briefly distracted people from the increasingly strict measures taken by the authorities to counter the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite nine years of war, and the destruction of infrastructures, hospital facilities, pharmaceutical and medical equipment plants, and an embargo on imports of such material, Syria seems to be handling the outbreak more effectively than other Arab countries.

Since 31 January, the day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that COVID-19 was a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern,’ AsiaNews, which is present on the Syrian-Lebanese border, has been able to observe how travellers from Lebanon underwent a medical check-up before crossing, something not done on the Lebanese side of the border. Pilgrimages scheduled for February and March from Catholic churches in Tartous and Latakia to Christians in Lebanon have been cancelled.

Syria’s Health Minister Nizar Yazji, a Christian, announced the country’s first COVID-19 case on 16 March, “a 20-year-old from abroad”. Preventive measures follow immediately. Syria’s land borders were closed. Syrians in Lebanon were told they had two days to come home. The country was placed on a lockdown with a night-time curfew (6 pm to 6 am). Except for grocery stores and pharmacies, all shops were closed. Newspapers stopped publication. Schools and universities were shut down. All mass meetings were banned, including religious gatherings. Crews began disinfecting the streets.

To reduce overcrowding and prevent prisons from becoming hotspots for contagion, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty, except for people convicted of foreign currency speculation and people responsible for crimes against 'humanity. Those serving life had their sentence reduced to 20 years.

Outside the country, opposition groups were unconvinced, dismissing the measures. Instead, they have accused the Syrian government of hiding the actual numbers and the real extent of the outbreak.

Orient News TV, an anti-Assad TV network based in the United Arab Emirates, has accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iran Air and Mahan, two Iranian airline companies, to continue flying into the country. According to the broadcaster, the government has not counted the positive cases reported in Damascus, Homs, Latakia and Tartous, whilst "no cases were recorded in the territories freed by the regime". The impression is that the global health threat is being used for political purposes.

On 16 March, another anti-Assad organisation, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported 128 cases and one death, that of a nurse who treated patients. The Observatory mentioned 15 other cases east of Deir ez-Zor, not reported by security forces.

By contrast, WHO representative in Damascus, Neama Saeed Abd, backed the Syrian government, dismissing other claims. Perhaps taking advantage of the easing of pressure from the United States, which is involved in the fight against COVID-19, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of the United Arab Emirates, phoned Syrian President Bashar Assad on 27 March asking that bygones be bygones, saying that “Arab Syria will not face alone'' this pandemic.

City in lockdown

In a country torn by a long war, the spread of the virus would have catastrophic consequences. Yesterday the official figures stood at 16. For this reason, the authorities are taking more steps. Travel between provinces has been banned until 16 April. Citrus fruit, dry legumes, and disinfectants (like chlorine) cannot be exported. Anti-gauging measures have been adopted to prevent price hikes.

Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar Al Jaafari called on the international community to lift sanctions, especially on medicines and medical equipment. A source told AsiaNews that all public hospitals in Damascus are reserved for COVID-19 cases and that it has become almost impossible to get hospital treatment for other conditions.

The city of Sayyidah Zaynab, near Damascus, has been isolated for two days after a COVID-19 case was reported. The city is home to shrine and the tomb of the daughter of Imam Hussein, a pilgrimage destination for Shias from around the world.

Residents in building in Tal Mnin, a rural village outside Damascus, have also been placed on a 14-day lockdown because one resident tested positive. Police have cordoned off the area and are providing food and disinfectant to the residents.

Opposition groups outside Syria have criticised the regime’s “repressive measures”. In Lebanon, where the number of cases is rising, many Syrians and others are trying to get into Syria illegally because they think the country is safer.

Al Madina radio station in Hama yesterday reported the arrest of ten illegal African workers near Hama, who had fled Lebanon for Syria. After a medical check-up they were placed in isolation.

To contain the COVID-19 outbreak, a toll-free number (193) is available to report anonymously on anyone who enters Syria illegally from Lebanon after the borders were closed and entry banned.

In Aleppo, the local Chamber of Commerce yesterday announced that it had succeeded in making ventilators (picture 2). Syrian TV also showed university medical students handing out free masks made in Syria.

Everyone in the country, Muslims and Christians, is praying to God, anxiously waiting for the results of these efforts. They hope the pandemic will reach its peak with the least possible harm to human life.

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