Dear friends and colleagues,

Given the extraordinary global challenge of COVID-19, we have decided to share with you again our weekly spotlight on the CoronaVirus response in Syria.

You can find previous updates on our website.

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Emma, Tobias and Suhail

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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As of Monday, Syria had 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases, two of whom have died and two of whom have recovered. All confirmed cases are in government-controlled areas, while small numbers of tests conducted elsewhere have so far all been negative. It is widely believed that Syria has far larger numbers of COVID-19 infections than is being reported. Deaths in hospitals due to respiratory symptoms, pneumonia, and heart complications, are reportedly reasonably common, with officials making efforts to assert that the deaths are not COVID-19 related, despite meeting the diagnostic requirements and remaining un-tested.  

The COVID-19 response in Syria has now been split completely, with the WHO now reporting on Damascus-focused operations and to a lesser degree the north-east. The north-west is covered from the Gaziantep office and reporting is done by OCHA. The UN-led response in Damascus is defined as the UN providing “support of the government response to the current public health emergency.” 

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Government Controlled areas: Last week, the Syrian government announced it would begin quarantining the town of Mneen in rural Damascus, following the death of a woman from the area due to COVID-19 (1 of 2 recorded fatalities). The woman had not been tested or quarantined prior to her death and her family had reportedly not been self-isolating in the period following it. The woman and her family run a shop in the town, bringing them into contact with a range of residents, which prompted the shutdown. 

Later the same week, the town of Sednaya self-quarantined by applying their own access restrictions and prevention measures. Mneen and Sednaya sandwich the notorious Sednaya Prison, raising additional concerns about an outbreak within it. Visits to all Syrian prisons have been suspended until further notice. The quarantines add urgency to the recent calls to release prisoners from international actors and Syrian CSOs alike.

In the Damascus suburbs, the government restricted access to and from Sayyida Zainab. The area is heavily populated and houses a large number of Iranian militias and their associates. It is believed that Syria’s COVID-19 infections primarily stem from Iran. The nearby suburb of Jaramana has self-quarantined, applying access restrictions and increased prevention measures on the area. Jaramana has swelled in population during the course of the war, now home to hundreds of thousands of people, a significant portion of whom are employed by the government and security sectors. The high-intensity living conditions present a high risk of widespread infection if COVID-19 reaches the suburb. 

Movement restrictions have increased at all levels. On Friday, the government extended the curfew on Friday and Saturday’s to begin at noon and continue until the following morning, reducing all weekend activity to a few hours per day. Tartous banned access to the corniche area of the province, while on Monday the Damascus governor banned access to public parks, their surroundings, and grassy area. 

In efforts to contain the virus, more than a dozen quarantine centres have been set up across government-controlled areas of the country with the WHO having checked 11 of them in Aleppo (Aleppo University Hospital, Zahi Azraq, Ibn Khalrdoun Hospital, Garnada Hotel and Bashar Hotel), Lattakia (Hasan Bir Health Center and Pioneer Camp), Deir-ez-Zor (Al-Assad Hospital and Frat Hospital), Homs (Ibn Al-Waleed Hospital, Homs University Dorm and Al-Talkalakhe Hospital). The Damascus testing lab will remain the primary testing centre, with satellite labs being built in Lattakia, Homs and Aleppo. A website pilot has been released to report the Ministry of Health COVID-19 figures in both Arabic and English. On Monday, the cabinet approved small financial rewards for health workers in the Coronavirus response, approving payments of 50,000 and 30,000 SYP (depending on category) per month for two months, to be extended if required. The health department of Deir Ezzour has pushed back on reports they have no ventilators, telling local radio they have six the province. 

On Sunday, 25,000 tonnes of wheat were received from Russia. Bread quality has recently dropped in Syria, with the government appointing a committee to investigate the issue. The availability of bread has also been difficult, with long lines for basic goods being shared on social media and local media reports. In response, on Monday, the government issued a circular banning the use of images or names of beneficiaries of aid on social media or media reports. The circular said the ruling was to protect the dignity of the needy, but in reality, simply outlaws the sharing of these images. The images show both an inappropriate response to the need for social distancing to battle COVID-19, undermining the curfew and other efforts citizens are making, as well as showing the levels of poverty and desperation within the areas. The government is keen to project a strong image in the face of the COVID-19 threat and views these images as undermining that. 

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North-east: Movement restrictions remain in place in Syria’s north-east, as efforts continue to ramp up preparedness despite the access restrictions faced by aid workers since January 2020. An ongoing debate about bringing supplies into the north-east continues despite the imminent threat posed by COVID-19. The area now has thirteen quarantine centres available but remains short of other health interventions in the COVID-19 fight. The north-east has 35 ICU beds and 40 ventilators, with all local testing capacity wiped out during the Turkish invasion of the north-east in September last year. Damascus has refused to allow a dedicated COVID-19 testing lab in the area, with a new arrangement being agreed in recent days to allow tests to be conducted in the government-controlled part of Qamishli. In the interim, hospitals in the area are using white blood cell tests and temperature checks to screen patients for potential Coronavirus infection. 

At Al-Hol camp, sixteen health staff are working in the camp hospitals and aid organizations are attempting to implement social distancing and other prevention measures, despite the crowded nature of the camp and harsh conditions. Other IDP camps in the area are of particular concern, due to the nature of the living conditions, and aid organizations have been providing soap and engaging in education and public information work with residents. 

North-west: Neither Idlib nor northern Aleppo presently has any confirmed COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, 40 tests had been carried out in Idlib, with all returning negative or not yet having returned results. In northern Aleppo, nine tests were conducted and sent to Turkey for results. The head of the Idlib Health Directorate said that there are only 105 ICU beds in Idlib and 47 ventilators, but all are presently full. Meanwhile, OCHA reports that three hospitals with intensive care units in Idleb, Salqin and Daret Azza are being turned into COVID-19 isolation centres, and will have a combined capacity of 210 beds. Seven new ambulances have also been put into service to treat virus patients. Two hospitals in Azaz and Jarablus have also been identified as possible locations for becoming COVID-19 isolation centres. Cobanbey Hospital in al-Rai’ has been identified as a reference hospital for COVID-19 cases, with five hospitals in northern Aleppo serving as triaging centres. In an effort to aid increased hygiene requirements in COVID-19 prevention, water trucking is being increased from 25 litres per person per day to 30-35 litres. 

Idlib Health Directorate issued a statement issued on Tuesday criticizing the efforts of the WHO’s prevention task force, which it described as “mere words on paper” which may not be implemented in time for any Coronavirus outbreak. Forty CSos and NGOs released a similar letter last week, raising concerns about the lack of preparedness and healthcare capacity in Syria. Idlib’s Health Directorate established a public information campaign to raise awareness about the Coronavirus, as well as implementing online training for medical staff across the province. Syria Civil Defense also established social media and local public health campaigns to raise awareness of the virus and how it spreads, with a particular focus in IDP camps near the Turkish border. White Helmets teams also began a widespread sterilization programme in the camps, schools and residential areas in Idlib. 

The HTS-affiliated Salvation Government issued several rulings about public gatherings, including the cancellation of Friday prayers for a period of two weeks, a decision that was met with criticism by hardline jihadis who refused to comply and carried out Friday prayers in several mosques around the province. The Government also cancelled weekly markets in al-Dana, Sarmada and Idlib city, while other local councils took similar steps. However, the measures are not gaining traction with all members of society, and a number of locals have refused to comply and continued normal life. Photos shared on social media on Monday showed hundreds of civilians attending a football match in Qah in north Idlib, while markets and shops remain open in many areas.

In Aleppo’s northern countryside, measures were introduced to encourage social distancing, including partly closing weekly markets and bazaars, banning weddings and social gatherings, and cancelling Friday prayers in the area. They also issued an amnesty for crimes committed before April 2020 that applies to prisoners aged above 60 years, or who have completed half of the sentence. The Government carried out a sterilization campaign across Aleppo. 

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Neighbouring Countries: Last week, the EU responded to the COVID-19 threat by announcing an additional €240M in financial support to humanitarian operations in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Turkey’s funding operates through a different grant so it was not included. Turkey’s Minister of Health announced on Monday that the country has 30,000 COVID-19 cases across the country, with a total of 649 deaths and 1415 patients in the ICU. The country’s testing capacity has reached 21,000 tests per day, with more than 202,000 tests having been completed. Istanbul and Ankara have the highest number of cases, while the numbers in the southern provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Killis, Urfa, Mardin, and Sirnak, near the Syrian border, have fewer than 200 cases combined.  

The Turkish government has adopted social distancing measures by closing schools, stores, and entertainment venues, and prohibited anyone under 20 years old, or over 65 years old, from leaving their homes. They also mandated the wearing of masks, later announcing that free masks will be provided by the government for citizens and residents in Turkey, including Syrian refugees. Masks must be requested through a special website which requires an individual's E-government number, something large numbers of Syrians don’t have as obtaining one requires a passport number and is not available to those without an ID, or holding an ID from a different province of Turkey. As a result, large numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey may be unable to obtain the masks and face heavy fines, something that would particularly impact young men who are the breadwinners in their families. Travel between Turkey’s provinces also is restricted, meaning citizens and residents can only travel between provinces for urgent matters after requesting permission from the local governor. The travel restrictions apply to Syrian refugees, and those who break the restrictions can be fined or could face deportation in some cases. 

As of Monday, three Syrians had tested positive for COVID-19 in Lebanon, among 520 infections and 17 deaths across Lebanon. Movement restrictions across Lebanon have been extended for another fortnight until late April. The government established a national solidarity fund that would accept in-kind and monetary donations and this is to be run using local intermediaries to identify those in need. The fund is increasing pressure on UN agencies to provide similar programmes for Syrians, who are straining under the economic hardships brought about by the lockdown. One Syrian refugee has died in recent days after setting himself on fire due to his economic distress.

There have been 349 confirmed cases and 6 deaths in Jordan, as of April 4th. The authorities have implemented a strict curfew and social distancing measures across the country, in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus. The defence law was enacted to enforce curfews, close businesses, and place restrictions on the movement of people within the country to counter the pandemic.

EU Camps: Refugee camps in both Greece and Cyprus are in lockdown after cases of COVID-19 were identified. The Ritsona camp, northeast of Athens, had 20 residents test positive for the virus and placed the camp under quarantine as a result––no one will be allowed in or out of the camp for 14 days. A 53-year-old Afghan man staying at Malakasa camp was also confirmed to have the virus, leading to that camp also being locked down. In Cyprus, the Kokkinotrimithia First Registration Reception centre has been turned into a de facto detention centre, now housing around 600 people. Refugees who had been allowed to move into other accommodations in Cyprus are now being moved back to the centre, according to a migrant advocacy group. Conditions in the centre are deteriorating and overcrowded, likely to increase the risks residents face during the Coronavirus pandemic, while the Cypriot government maintains the move is COVID-19 related. 

In response to the growing concern about the impact of COVID-19 in Syria and surrounding countries, the call to lift sanctions on the country has grown stronger. However, the EU and the US have highlighted their willingness to ensure humanitarian waivers are operating correctly to ensure all goods required for the humanitarian response to COVID-19 are available. To date, the calls for prisoner releases in Syria have fallen on deaf ears and no such releases have been seen. 

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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:

Get 30 day free trial

SYRIA IN CONTEXT is a subscription newsletter edited by Emma Beals and Tobias Schneider and written with Suhail al-Ghazi. You can follow us on twitter @SyriaInContext or email us at .

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