The first case of coronavirus has been confirmed in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib province, fuelling fears of a catastrophic outbreak in the war-ravaged territory.
Dr Abdulhakim Ramadan, general coordinator of public health in Idlib province, told VICE News that the positive test was returned Thursday by a Syrian doctor working in a hospital in Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian-Turkish border. The doctor has since been quarantined, he said.
Maram al-Sheikh, an opposition health official in Idlib, tweeted Thursday evening that health officials had launched an emergency response to the positive test, with the hospital and its living quarters closed, and the doctor’s contacts traced, swabbed and isolated.
“We are extremely concerned,” said Sherine Ibrahim, Turkey country director for aid group CARE. “We have dreaded this day and we fear now that the situation spirals out of control as the disease spreads.”
For months, local officials and aid groups have warned about the virus eventually reaching Idlib, the northwest province that’s the last major bastion of Syrian rebel forces, and considered one of the world’s most vulnerable environments for an outbreak. Ramadan told VICE News earlier this year that the arrival of COVID-19 in Idlib would be a knockout blow for the decimated province, “like the last punch in a boxing match”.
The inhabitants of Idlib, 70 percent of whom are reliant on humanitarian assistance, were already among the most brutalized people in the world, even before the arrival of COVID-19. Nearly a decade of fighting has driven millions from their homes, with about a million displaced since a major regime offensive to crush the opposition began late last year. Many live in unhygienic conditions in overcrowded camps, or in makeshift accommodation in factories, schools or out in the open, where social distancing and isolating is impossible.
The fighting, which has involved systematic targeting of medical facilities, has left the province’s health infrastructure shattered and grossly under-equipped to respond to the pandemic; it has only about 150 ventilators, and a similar number of beds in intensive care units. Meanwhile, the shattered economy means people can’t afford to stay home and forego working, or their families will starve.
“We’re really worried about the new situation,” Fuad Sayidissa, founder of Violet Syria, a volunteer movement working in Idlib camps, told VICE News. He said he expected the virus would spread beyond the confirmed patient so far, given the wide exposure the doctor would have had to patients, and the lack of capacity to respond to an outbreak.
He said while international organizations and local authorities had been working to build health capacity to deal with the eventual arrival of the virus, not enough progress had been made.
“It’s not enough at all,” he said. “It’s so dangerous for the people in the camps, sharing water and wash facilities.”
Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria response director, said the confirmation of coronavirus in northwest Syria was “a major blow to the millions of civilians – mainly women and children – living in this area.”
“A wider COVID-19 outbreak would see families who are already fighting for survival – many without clean water or nutritious food – battle this highly infectious disease in overcrowded camps and shelters.”
The confirmation of coronavirus in Idlib comes as the U.N Security Council continues to haggle over renewing an agreement that allows supplies of essential humanitarian aid from Turkey into the stricken province. Earlier this week, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution to extend aid deliveries from Turkey to Syria, an agreement which has been in place since 2014 and is set to expire Friday.
The veto has placed one of the two crossing points from Turkey at risk of being closed, a development that aid groups say would have a devastating impact on Idlib’s vulnerable population.
Ibrahim said the confirmation of COVID-19 in Idlib highlighted the urgent need for the Security Council to vote to continue the essential aid lifeline into the region.
“It is more critical than ever to continue delivering aid to over 3 million people in northwest Syria and to ramp up the delivery of medical supplies, including protective equipment, as quickly as we can,” she said. “A vote to restrict or end access may prove to be a death sentence.”
Syria has officially recorded 372 cases of coronavirus, including 14 deaths, although the actual level of infection is suspected to be higher, due to a lack of widespread testing. As of June 30, only 1,661 tests had been carried out in northwest Syria.