As the world had gone frenzy with millions of testing taking place worldwide and medical emergencies and curfews, for the northwest of Syria, despite the crucial overall situation, the population remained in a relatively similar posture to how life used to be with “limited” social distancing adherence.
Northern Syria is home to approximately three million people, the rebel-held region of Idlib has yet to record a single Covid-19 case; however, the conditions are especially “ripe” for an outbreak. In late March, The Covid-19 testing kicked off, amid fears of a disaster if the pandemic pre-filtered in the overcrowded displacement camps.
The humanitarian status for people remains alarming across northwest Syria. While active hostilities came to a standstill in early March, the impact of recent military operations, as well as multiple displacements, economic hardship, and years of conflict, continue to affect the lives of civilians. Over 854,000 people reportedly remain in “displacement”. The figures comprise many vulnerable segments of the society, such as the elderly, persons with disabilities, and female- or child-headed households. While the situation in NW Syria already struggles from a humanitarian inadequacy across the displaced camps, the pre-existing needs of the broader dwellers remain incredibly high and are drastically getting worse.
Implementing Mitigating Circumstances
Following the virus outbreak, authorities took precautions, closing schools, clinics, and some markets, prohibiting people’s gatherings whether for religious worship, reducing operations of businesses including restaurants and grocery stores, and imposing curfews.
We cannot expect mitigation measures to succeed where millions are displaced in crowded conditions, without adequate sanitation, and no assets or safety net to fall back on
Mark Lowcock – UN Emergency Relief Coordinator
Although dwellers’ adherence appears to be limited, an extensive communication awareness campaign on individual precautionary measures against Covid-19 was carried out and implemented across northwest Syria, augmented through mosques, local communities, and social and traditional media endeavoring to assert the importance of the precautionary measures obedient.
In a briefing to the Security Council, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock warned that Covid19 intensifies the impact of Syria’s severe economic crisis. According to the relief chief, the World Food Programme (WFP) over the past year, basic food prices have jumped more than 100 percent.
While the pandemic behaves in Syria as it has elsewhere, “then tragedy beckons”. M. Lowcock asserts. He further warns that “We cannot expect mitigation measures to succeed where millions are displaced in crowded conditions, without adequate sanitation, and no assets or safety net to fall back on”.
Despite the ceasefire, the humanitarian situation in the northwest remains as dismal as it has ever been with alarming levels of stunting and malnutrition among pregnant and breastfeeding women.
As the displaced population begins to settle after the halt in a military operation, needs are sharply increasing—work opportunities to afford to buy food and cleaning materials, health, nutrition, and education services. The needs of the displaced people continue to be adequate shelters, clean water, sanitation and hygiene, food, and protection. Such requirements are crucial to avoid the proliferation of the virus at a grassroots level.
Asa’ad Farah, deputy manager of Eza’az’s city council, asserted that “the local administration, within its capacity, took many pre-emptive measures amid Covid-19 outbreak fears by applying curfew and forced closure of public places and events.” He said Parks, mosques, and restaurants where human interaction is unavoidable are closed down to minimize the likelihood of the virus’s dispersal.
In collaboration with the health minister and medical bodies to prepare for any cases, a medical camp was set up in the city to isolate cases and fully equipped with the necessary means. However, while in many instances human interaction is impossible to bypass, Eza’az’s local authority launched a sterilization operation across the city’s public facilities, prisons, courts, and mosques.
The ongoing humanitarian response to Covid-19 in northwest Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) contemplates two phases. First and foremost, prevention of, and preparedness for, potential virus cases, and secondly, making sure that the humanitarian aid influx continues while mitigating the risk posed by Corona virus to communities and humanitarian workers.
While the virus proliferation fears are still on the stake, the sterilization campaign will to continue for the coming three months
Firas Khalifa – Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) Media Spokesman
According to Firas Khalifa, a media spokesman of the Syrian Civil Defense (White helmets) indicated that “while the military offensives halted in the region, the white helmet’s members could devote their efforts to tackle the viruses preemptively.”
“The members took precautions, undertaking their jobs to protect themselves.” He added.
The organization had undertaken a large-scale sterilizing campaign across North West Syria’s camps, hospitals, schools, mosques bakeries, and all potential communal spots where the virus could emerge.
While cleaning measures are dire at the camps, many were sterilized multiple times, in addition to over 1277 locations overall. In parallel, the White Helmets staff undertook awareness campaigns at the camps about the health and social distancing application necessities.
“While the virus proliferation fears are still on the stake, the sterilization campaign will to continue for the coming three months,” The spokesman said
At the onset of the virus’s outbreak across the world, civil society organizations harnessed their initiatives to tackle hygienic and cleanliness needs. Nearly 165 NGOs geared up their capacities to undertake a comprehensive plan and proceed to face the global pandemic.
The teams will be working across all northwest Syria to transfer cases and ensure that they are, if it ever happens, infected and act according to the medical procedures.
Foaud Essa – Violet Organization Manager
Violet Organization manager- Foaud Essa- told Glimpse that their nearly 150 volunteer members have been working on the ground in collaboration with various local stakeholders to respond effectively. The NGO organized a training course for 40 nurses and medical workers relating to the measures that they must undertake and to isolate any case. “The trained medical staff are fully equipped with ambulances and protection medical gears, medicines, and sanitizers.” The manager said
“The teams will be working across all northwest Syria to transfer cases and ensure that they are, if it ever happens, infected and act according to the medical procedures,”
Akin to the White Helmets, Violet also implemented a wide-scale sterilizing operation across different areas and displaced canters where displaced families who live in dire conditions.
Violet’s initiative, Essa said, also provided a mini “cleaning baskets” which comprised a small portion of cleaning substances to encourage dwellers to use them more frequently to avoid getting the infection.
While countries worldwide were looking to ensure their hospitals’ readiness to encounter the scaling up Covid-19 patients, for North West Syrian since the surge of deliberate attacks against hospitals last year, residents and doctors were left with minimal capacity to face the pandemic if an outbreak occurs. The Syrian-Russian military alliance relentlessly attacked critical civilian infrastructure across Idlib, including hospitals and healthcare centers.
D.Mustafa Al Eido, the deputy manager of Idlib’s health minister said that awareness campaigns are taking place across northern Syria, reaffirming the World Health Organization’s precautionary measures.
Although the deployment of extra efforts is ongoing to prepare for the potential widespread of Covid-19 preemptively, there is still inadequate capacity and equipment to fill in the population needs to face the pandemic. In collaboration with Violet NGO, an establishment of approximately 50 tents (field-hospital)took place in response to the global pandemic. The established medical point aims to operate and hospitalize infected patients with the virus. Notwithstanding the deliberate bombardment of hospitals in northern Syria left the health sector with limited options to make space for the overwhelming numbers of war wounded.
According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the hospitals capacity were increased with additional two laboratories in North Syria to test for COVID-19. The process is also ongoing to procure 90 ventilators, eight oxygen concentrators, and three X-ray machines for hospitals in north-western Syria, in addition to the existing 203 ventilators. Three hospitals are ready to receive patients, and three additional hospitals with ICUs are being altered and repurposed as Covid-19 isolation patients management centers, in Idlib, Daret Azza, and Salqin.
Shifting operational strategies
In parallel, while enabling operational continuity organizations are enhancing existing plans to adjust for new service, and delivery Organizations are adapted modalities to accommodate Covid-19 precautions measures.
NGOs altered its activities to virtual platforms or phone-based engagement mechanisms, including for coordination. For awareness-raising, education, and case management services, and gatherings have been further reduced through scale-ups of door-to-door distributions and consolidating distributions.
Kesh Malek Organization– Civil Society NGO- had adjusted its programs in Syria to fit the globally recommended precautionary measures. Isam Khatib, the organization’s director, said that “amid contributing in the fight against Covid-19 we shifted our operation to protect the society and our team on the ground.”
Khatib explained that “Women empowerment” training program sessions continued online. Also, the “Accelerated education Program” and “Youth Citizens’ Club’s activities had been reconstructed to fit the temporal online learning method until the risks of Covid-19 no longer exist.
Similarly, Khatib highlights that Turkish based office operations all followed suit.
“Despite the unprecedented circumstances and risk, we are tirelessly working to maintain the life cycle and civic activities up and running. As a Civil Society organization, our role is to support marginalized segments of the society and help them to carry on their ambition in the pursuant of social change vividly by all means at all times within the available capabilities.”
Overall, although civil society stakeholders have taken the necessary measures to minimize the virus’ potential outbreak [by awareness campaigns and other means], many civilians are actively going out. The lack of sufficient law enforcement, on the street with a high proportion of human interaction, however striving to earn a living during the holy month.
While the outbreak of Covid-19 adduces a looming medical crisis in northern Syria, however, we shall not overlook the disaster that is already taking place. Perhaps riskier, the economic meltdown and lack of sustainable resources to help the society hold tight would, in the short term unravel a humanitarian crisis that would be beyond the civil society’s shrinking capacity. The international community must act both economically and medically to effectively support Syrians.