Aleppo Christian doctor says US-EU sanctions hinder the fight against coronavirus

Blue Marist Dr Nabil Antaki slams the punitive measures that hinder the fight against the pandemic. Today in Aleppo there are no ventilators and beds in intensive care units, essential if the virus spreads. In the city some people show COVID-19 symptoms but have tested negative.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – In order to stop the novel coronavirus pandemic, which is still contained in Syria, it is essential to scrap European (and US) sanctions against Syria, this according to Nabil Antaki, a Christian doctor specialising in gastroenterology, who spoke to AsiaNews.

A lay member of the order of Marist Friars, he is one of the few medical doctors who remained in Aleppo during the war, playing a leading role in the relief work to help hundreds of thousands of people victimised by years of conflict. In his view, the punitive measures harm the entire “civilian population” and could “aggravate” the epidemic, but “have had no effects on ending the war”.

Born in Aleppo, the married father of two (who live in the United States), Dr Antaki graduated from the University of St Joseph in Beirut (Lebanon) and specialised in Canada. He founded the Blue Marists with his wife, a medical association that helps the poor. Before the conflict, the health system "was well functioning", but today there are no resources or equipment “like ventilators, beds in intensive care units”. Dr Antaki’s interview with AsiaNews follows:

Talking about the COVID-19 Pandemic, how is the situation in Syria? And in Aleppo in particular? 

Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is not, so far, as severe in Syria as in Europe and the US. Up until today, there are only 19 reported cases with two deaths, all in the Damascus area. No case has been reported in Aleppo.

Did you see any patient in your hospital with novel coronavirus symptoms?

We have seen some cases in Aleppo with symptoms and CT scans very similar to COVID-19 but the PCR[*] tests were negative.

Syria up to now doesn't seem to have been hit hard by coronavirus cases. Do you think the official numbers are true or are cases underestimated?

I think that the true number of people with coronavirus is higher that the official declared number of cases. This is mainly due to the very little number of people tested. We are not doing large-scale screening in Syria; only severely ill patients are tested. I don't think that the authorities are hiding the number of cases, they don't have any interest in doing so; nobody will blame them if they declare more cases since they took all preventive measures to avoid the spreading of the coronavirus

After so many years of war are you ready to face the pandemic or is the health system in crisis? 

No, we are not [prepared]. Syria’s well-functioning health sector before the war has been so badly degraded by the effects of war and by the sanctions imposed by the European Union and the US. If the epidemic becomes more severe, we don't have enough equipment, like ventilators, beds in Intensive care units . . . to face it.

Are the measures taken by the government (curfew, lockdown and so on) enough or is more necessary to halt the spread of the virus?

So far, the measures are enough (closing schools, universities, restaurants, coffee shops, manufacturing plants, workshops and all shops except food stores, plus a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am, but if the epidemic gets worse, total confinement should be declared.

Are refugee camps and displaced people a source of trouble?

Displaced people and refugees in camps are the most vulnerable people and a source of concern, but fortunately up until now they are not more affected than others.

Do you want to send a message or ask something through AsiaNews?

I would like to ask European governments to lift the sanctions against Syria. They constitute a form of collective punishment of a civilian population, contrary to the Geneva conventions. They may aggravate the coronavirus epidemic and have had no effects on ending the war or advancing toward a political solution of the Syrian conflict.

[*] Polymerase chain reaction.