Dear friends and colleagues,

We hope those celebrating had a blessed and restorative Eid. 

In recent weeks, Syria in Context has been making our COVID-19 coverage available as a free supplement in English, as well as in Arabic (with kind support from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung). Given the lack of independent and reliable coverage of the unfolding crisis, we think this is an urgent necessity.

Please feel free to forward this and other free issues to your network.

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Thank you,

Emma, Tobias and Asser

Syria in Context will continue to cover the impact and response to COVID-19 in Syria throughout the coming weeks. You can find previous updates on our website.

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Syria’s COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in recent days, driven by repatriated nationals returning from abroad testing positive to the virus. As of Tuesday, the Ministry of Health (MoH) in Syria reported 121 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 41 recoveries and 4 deaths. Six additional cases had been reported in Syria’s northeast by May 15, which are not recognized by the MoH, one of whom has died and four have recovered. No cases have been confirmed in the northwest where 726 tests had been conducted by May 24. Eid holidays have limited the amount of work, news, and information available about the COVID-19 response in Syria over the last week.

Government-controlled areas: The Syrian Ministry of Health announced registering 35 new cases among Syrians who have recently returned to the country. Of these, 24 cases arrived from Kuwait; eight from Sudan; one from Russia; and two from the UAE. On Sunday, the test results of a Russian soldier in Tartous came back negative. The man had taken ill two days prior and initial tests seemed to suggest he was infected, though subsequent tests proved negative. While awaiting results, workers were quarantined in the Tartous port to prevent any spread. They were allowed to leave once the negative test results returned. 

On Monday, the governmental Coronavirus task-force convened with the Prime Minister and resolved to lift the partial curfew and end the restrictions on movement between governorates as of Tuesday, May 26. Movement between the provinces had been allowed for the Eid period (and resorts and hotels on the coast were reportedly booked out). The task-force also announced that shops will be allowed to open from 8am until 7pm during the summer. The Syrian football leagues will resume in July.

The relaxation of the preventative measures comes despite the recent spike in cases among citizens returning from abroad, presumably because community spread has not yet been identified around those cases, with the MoH reporting no local cases registered in May. Repatriations have been halted until all new cases are treated and those in quarantine centres are released. However, according to the Governor of Rural Damascus, Alaa Ibrahim, Syrians coming from Lebanon will still be allowed into the country but would be quarantined in a repurposed school. Those who cross from Lebanon illegally will be handed over to the judiciary after their mandatory 14-day quarantine. On May 20, the MoH said that 1,156 people out of 2,270 who had recently been admitted to quarantine centres had been released.

On May 20, videos and photographs of food being thrown out of the balcony in a quarantine centre in Damascus circulated on social media, stirring controversy. Residents of the Damascus University dormitory, which has been temporarily turned into a quarantine centre, threw the chicken and rice meals they were provided with from the building’s balcony in protest for the conditions they are being held under. Soon after the photos and videos began to spread, both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Interior announced that they would be investigating the affair. The assistant to the director of health in Damascus posted on his Facebook page that the residents did this as a means of pressuring the authorities into releasing them earlier than planned. The Syrian Ministry of Interior announced on Tuesday that seven people have confessed that they “incited a riot and threw their food from the building’s balcony under the pretext that it was delivered to them in an open-cargo pick-up truck.” They have been arrested and they will be presented before the judiciary on May 30, according to the Ministry of Interior. Some Syrians expressed solidarity with the detainees, criticizing the nature of Syria’s quarantine centres, while others utterly disapproved of the way they acted out, saying that more Syrians dream of the chicken and rice meal that was given to them for free. 

Northwest: As of May 24, there were 726 negative COVID-19 tests in the north, with no positive results. There is still only one testing lab available in Idlib, with some of the samples from northern Aleppo being taken to Turkey for testing.

While the area’s health sector remains underserved and under-prepared, a number of deliveries have reached the northwest from Turkey in recent weeks, including 35 much-needed ventilators, a million surgical masks as well as other supplies. In April alone, 1,365 trucks crossed the border from Turkey to northwest Syria - a major increase in assistance compared to the same time last year. The cross-border aid resolution, without which the aid effort in the northwest is set to collapse, is up for renewal at the UN Security Council in a few weeks. An early renewal was rejected at the UNSC meeting last week. A failure to renew would have devastating effects for the northwest of Syria, disrupting the vast aid effort sustaining the region and preventing humanitarians from preparing for, and addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a recent video, epidemiologist Dr. Abdulkarim Kzayez outlined to the people of Idlib three scenarios for potential COVID-19 outbreaks in the northwest, based recently published modelling: In one possible scenario, he said that if the virus took hold in the area, they might have 17,000 cases in just 8 weeks, with 2,500 of them requiring hospital treatment and 978 cases proving fatal within those eight weeks. A second scenario, which assumes a faster spread, envisaged a possible 200,000 cases, with nearly 30,000 people needing hospital care and an estimated 11,000 dead. A third model focused on the impact on the IDP communities along the Turkish border, predicting an even faster and higher trajectory of infection and fatality if an outbreak took place. All three scenarios would see the local health care capacities overwhelmed in between four and eight weeks – likely leading to massive spikes in death as severe cases go untreated. Dr Kyayez highlighted ‘divine care’ and distancing as the reasons for the lack of COVID-19 outbreak to date and stressed the need for distancing.  

(Chart: Three models of COVID-19 impact in northwestern Syria)

Northeast: As of May 15, Syria’s northeast reported six COVID-19 cases. One of the infected had passed away, while three were only identified by antibody test after recovering. The Eid holiday has delayed recent updates from the area, but tests are still taking place under three different regimes due to the disjointed response in NES. 

Water access in NES remained intermittent during recent weeks with many areas relying on water trucking and patchy service from pumping stations. Service from Alouk water station has been interrupted on and off due to interference by Turkish-backed forces and water trucking has increased to make up the gaps in services. As the summer heat increases, the availability of water for hygiene, essential for effective COVID-19 prevention, will come under further strain.   

Despite the WHO reaching Qamishli with a convoy of medical supplies from Damascus on Tuesday, humanitarian access to the area remains difficult. Last week, the UNSC met to discuss an early renewal of the cross-border aid resolution and a possible reinstatement of the cross-border access from Iraq to the northeast, which had been removed in January under Russian pressure. In April already, the WHO requested the reinstatement of the vital crossing during the ongoing pandemic, a request that was denied by the Joint Syria-Russian “Center for the Return of Refugees”. In the last UNSC meeting, Russian diplomats similarly dismissed concerns from several member states regarding the critical need for the cross-border operations in the northeast. The NES COVID-19 response has been severely hampered by the change in aid regime which impacted both the delivery of goods and the coordination efforts mandated by the resolution. As a result, testing and tracing, information sharing, and coordination and planning have suffered, with the local authorities in NES importing their own testing systems and running testing and contact tracing in parallel to the WHO response. With the deadline for the renewal of the cross-border resolution rapidly approaching, the humanitarian actors in NES continue to hope that the system may be re-implemented. 

Neighbouring countries: Jordan reports 711 cases, with 479 having recovered, and 9 have died. After a spike in cases, Jordan locked down over the Eid period, before loosening restrictions again this week. Concerns over the economy have led the government to take aggressive preventative action to ensure no widespread outbreak occurs in the country, which has had some of the strictest lockdowns in the region. In Lebanon, there have been 1,119 cases, with 688 recoveries, and 26 deaths. Lebanon, like Syria, has seen a spike in imported cases as they repatriate citizens from around the world, and has retained a curfew following a recent second lockdown. On Monday, Lebanese media reported 13 Syrian refugees in the town of Majdal Anjar had contacted COVID-19 and that the area had been shut down to prevent any spread. So far the virus has not spread within Lebanon’s many informal settlement camps of Syrian refugees. However, refugees continue to report harsh living conditions caused by the economic consequences of strict lockdowns. Turkey has 157,814 COVID-19 cases, with 120,015 cases recovering, and 4,369 people have died of the virus. Refugees in Turkey report a lack of access to information about the outbreak as well as difficulty accessing health care and extreme consequences for their economic and employment opportunities. 

COVID-19 Key Reads:

Syria in Context will continue to cover the impact and response to COVID-19 in Syria throughout the coming weeks. You can find previous updates on our website.

We are a wholly subscriber-funded publication. If you have found this update useful, we encourage you to consider joining our growing community:

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SYRIA IN CONTEXT is a subscription newsletter edited by Emma Beals and Tobias Schneider and written with Asser Khattab. You can follow us on twitter @SyriaContext or email us at .

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