Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
During the Arab Spring of 2011, protesters in Syria gathered to try and oust the Assad family regime, who have been in power since 1971. In 2012, the UN declared Syria to be in a state of civil war, following a failed attempt at a ceasefire between rebel groups and the Bashar al-Assad government in April of that year. What has followed in the past decade has been the biggest humanitarian crisis of the modern era, with an estimated 380,000 dead, and 13 million displaced. The conflict has led to untold suffering, abject poverty and refugees trying to flee the country every single day. Yet, the al-Assad regime continues to cling on to power.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has hit the country particularly hard due for a plethora of reasons. Attacking hospitals and medical personnel is a violation of international law, but this has not stopped armed forces (government, rebel and international) from deliberately attacking health centres in Syria. Between 2011-2018 there have been 611 attacks on hospitals and healthcare centres, and according to the WHO 70% of total worldwide attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel have occurred in Syria. It is almost too obvious to point at the negative effects this has had on the ability of Syrian healthcare professional to deal with the current crisis.
Syrian healthcare workers and activists have been forced to write anonymously on social media and in Western newspapers in order to spread awareness about how serious the situation has become. They write about the dangerously over-crowded hospitals, the shortage of PPE and near non-existence of ICU beds. They have also spoken out about the rampant under-reporting of cases and deaths. On the 26th August Syria has reported just over 2,000 cases and only 95 deaths, 52 of these in the capital Damascus. However, an LSE policy memo anticipates that Syria could actually have had 2 million cases and 119,000 deaths by the end of August. The same study estimates that Syria currently has around 35,000 cases.
Looking at the capital more specifically, people are in a very vulnerable position to deal with the virus. Houses that one family used to live in, now often house half a dozen family groups, and 80% of the population are living under the poverty line. People are starving and are forced to choose between bread or a mask with the little money they have. Should someone contract the virus, the estimated cost of dealing with it is 25,000 Syrian pounds (£7.61), which is more than half of the monthly income for many people. The crushing sanctions from the Trump administrations’ ‘Ceasar Syrian Civilian Protection Act’ have destroyed the already weak Syrian economy. While the intention was not to punish civilians, the sanctions have had the worst impact on those who are already struggling to survive. These sanctions target individuals or businesses anywhere in the world that operate either directly or indirectly with Syria’s economy. This forces Syria into a state of complete isolation and prevents any industry or firm from pursuing opportunities that may help Syria’s reconstruction.
The issues that Syria face in dealing with the pandemic are much more complicated than just the authoritarian regime or the civil war. The effects of international military action and sanctions have meant that abject poverty is rife, and COVID-19 has only served to illuminate this further.