“We are slipping into disaster”

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More than a million displaced people endure miserable conditions in the Syrian province of Idlib. The human helper Fadi Al-Dairi warns that humans are at the mercy of the corona virus.



© UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS



Aid organizations fear that an outbreak of the coronavirus will threaten hundreds of thousands of people in northwestern Syria. In the region around the Syrian city of Idlib have been gathering since December UN estimates around a million people who fled the attacks by the Syrian regime and Russia.

The situation in the camps along the closed border with Turkey was dramatic even before the Covid-19 threat. Now the situation is getting worse.

MIRROR: According to the Syrian government, there is only one corona case in Syria, although all neighboring countries are affected much more severely. Do you think so?

Al-Dairi: As in any country ruled by a dictator, facts are denied here. The rulers think it is a shame to have the corona virus in the country. The Damascus health minister said recently that there was Covid-19 in Syria, and he rowed back the next day. But of course there is the corona virus in Syria. Many visitors come from Iran and the situation there is known to be dramatic.

MIRROR: They work with their organization in the Idlib province, which is home to three million people, including one million refugees. According to Welthungerhilfe, there are a total of 50 ventilators in northwestern Syria. The conditions in which many endure are catastrophic. How big is the danger from Covid-19?

Al-Dairi: The moment the virus hits the camps, we slide into disaster. We have extremely few hospitals in northwest Syria. The few that we have focus on childbirth and childcare. Other few have focused on surgery. In the Idlib province there are on average one to two doctors, six nurses and one midwife for every 10,000 people. And because we have been a war zone for nine years, we lack specialists who are familiar with the epidemic.

MIRROR: Many refugees live in abandoned buildings or with up to twelve people in a tent on muddy ground. Washing hands or social distancing are not possible. How well are people at the border protected against Covid-19?

Al-Dairi: Not at all. I’m sure the virus is going to spread. We have no confirmation so far because we cannot test and there is no way to do it. But imagine how provisionally the refugees live. Flowing water is only found in certain towns and villages in the northwest. The majority of people rely on water that is supplied by trucks. The refugees share the few showers, washrooms and toilets. Everyone is touching the same tap.

MIRROR: Many experts complain that international aid is sluggish or not at all. What would it take to curb the spread of Covid-19 now?

Al-Dairi: We have naturally reduced or restricted all our activities in the camps since the first cases occurred. It is also a good thing that the border with the government-controlled areas in northern Syria is closed. So we have practically only one border with Turkey. And then there is a task force against Covid-19. “Hand in Hand” is a partner of the World Health Organization (WHO) and as such is responsible for implementing the WHO pandemic plan in northwestern Syria.

“Please don’t forget the Syrians”

MIRROR: Doctors estimate that a million people in the province become infected and 100,000 to 120,000 could die. 10,000 people may need ventilation. What is this WHO pandemic plan?

Al-Dairi: Together with the WHO, we are planning to set up isolation centers in the communities in the north-west of the country, where soon those who are infected with Covid-19 or who are suspected to be taken care of. Shelters with beds are to be created, in which the sick are treated with a mild course and in which there are also incubators for those who need oxygen. My organization is to run these centers. But we are still at an early stage of the discussion and need to see if we need additional partners. The measure is scheduled for the end of June.

MIRROR: The Idlib province is the last rebel area in Syria. The infrastructure in Idlib is also so thin because hospitals are targeted by the Russian Air Force. More than 84 medical facilities have been destroyed or closed since December.

Al-Dairi: The Syrian regime and Russia target bombs of hospitals to pressure the population and weaken the opposition. These attacks take place even though we share the locations of the facilities. If someone in the community needs medical help and the hospital at their home is destroyed, they have to drive two hours to the next facility and die before they reach their destination. On the other hand, as helpers, we have problems setting up health care in one place because civilians and armed groups do not want us close to them. The population faces a dilemma. To send even more patients to the hospitals in this situation would be fatal.

MIRROR: A few weeks ago you were in Idlib yourself. How are the people there? What do you hear from your colleagues who still work there?

Al-Dairi: There is a great deal of uncertainty at the border. Every day the question arises as to whether there will be a deal with the Syrian regime or whether it will continue to advance and threaten the refugees. If people were to return to their hometowns, they would surely be arrested and tortured by the secret service. So this is not an option. They also cannot go to Turkey because the country has already taken in four to five million Syrians. And they are helpless in the face of the spreading virus. Just like us.

MIRROR: Are you afraid that the world community will forget Syria?

Al-Dairi: Each country is very concerned with its own national affairs due to this virus outbreak. We only say: Please don’t forget the Syrians trapped inside Syria. Many citizens in Germany, the UK or other countries are now hoarding food. Perhaps people on this side of the world can now better understand the pressure on many refugees.

All current information and recommendations from the Ministry of Health can be found here.

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