In Syria’s northwest, medics fear the worst if coronavirus hits crowded camps

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – In Syria’s northwest, where people uprooted by war are crammed into camps, medics fear the coronavirus would spread widely if it reaches a country with its healthcare system in ruins.

Doctors and aid workers say they have recorded no cases so far. But they warned that camps would not cope in the event of an outbreak, with hospitals already struggling to treat even basic illnesses after nine years of war.

Omar Hammoud, a children’s doctor in Azaz town, says a clear plan has yet to be drawn up for Syria’s northwest, the last big insurgent bastion outside state hands.

“I’ve taken my precautions in dealing with patients and I’m trying to calm their panic, because there is so much talk about the virus,” he told Reuters at a clinic that belongs to IDA, a Turkey-based aid agency that runs healthcare facilities on the Syrian side of the border.

Across the world, the number of coronavirus cases has topped 119,000 and nearly 4,300 have died as the outbreak spread to more countries, prompting greater economic damage.

Within the Middle East, Iran has been worst hit with around 9,000 people infected and 354 deaths. Turkey by contrast, which borders northwest Syria and has forces stationed across the frontier, confirmed its first case on Wednesday.

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday only half of health facilities remained operational in northwest Syria, where fighting has forced about 1 million people to flee since December.

Many live in squalid makeshift camps and sleep outdoors in olive groves in a region where much of the population had already fled battles in other parts of Syria earlier in the war.

“If the virus spreads in the camps, controlling it would be very difficult, with the tents so close to each other,” Hamoud said. “There is no safe distance between people here, there is overpopulation.”

He said medics, who received gloves and masks from the aid group, were checking patients, disinfecting everything and trying to keep camp residents informed about symptoms of the virus.

But there was only so much they could do.

The UK-based Islamic Relief charity warned that healthcare in Idlib in the northwest was already “at the brink of collapse”.

The population suffers from mass homelessness and chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes as well as trauma injuries from the conflict, it said in a statement on Wednesday.

“People’s immune systems have been systematically worn down by the violence and years of malnutrition and poverty,” it said. “The conditions are rife for an outbreak that we simply do not have the resources to handle.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)