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Antagonism and confusion undermine northeast Syria’s response to the coronavirus

The first death from COVID-19 in northeast Syria this month has brought to the fore the anticipated difficulties of containing and combating the pandemic in the divided country.

AMMAN — The first death from COVID-19 in northeast Syria this month has brought to the fore the anticipated difficulties of containing and combating the pandemic in the divided country. 

On April 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the news of the death, which the director of the National Hospital in the city of Qamishli subsequently denied. However, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-affiliated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA)—responsible for managing northeast Syria—expressed its surprise toward the presence of the COVID-19 case in its territory. 

The COVID-19 patient died at the National Hospital in the city of Qamishli. While the city is under the control of the Kurdish-dominated SDF, the hospital is managed and run, like many other government institutions in the northeast, by the Syrian government, according to an implicit agreement between the two parties. 

In a statement, the AA said that “the WHO did not inform the AA’s authorities in charge of public health issues,” and therefore holds the organization responsible for “the presence or spread of the coronavirus between citizens because it has been secretive about suspected cases.”

Syria Direct did not receive a comment from the WHO regarding the statement and accusations made by the AA. However, Rabreen Hassan, the co-chair of the Health Authority in the Jazira region, told Syria Direct that the response of the WHO was that they “informed the relevant authorities of the case,” referring to the Ministry of Health in Damascus. She added that the WHO agreed to coordinate directly with the AA in the future, especially since “the Syrian authorities do not cooperate with the AA, but instead, are sending people to our areas without going through medical observation points,” according to the statement. 

Damascus’ crippling role in thwarting preventive measures
Among the measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in northeast Syria, border crossings with neighboring regions and countries have been closed since March 14. Nonetheless, flights between Damascus and Qamishli airport, both under the control of the Syrian government, have not stopped, while Damascus seems determined not to coordinate with the AA in terms of following the necessary precautionary measures for those who recently arrived in the region.  

According to media reports, approximately 100 people have arrived at the Qamishli airport on four flights since mid-March. Some of them were smuggled by Damascus-affiliated persons to bypass preliminary medical tests and preventative quarantines. 

In the same context, the Kurdish internal security forces known as “Asayish” recently arrested two women and a smuggler who attempted to smuggle them “through the buildings surrounding the airport to bypass the quarantine procedures mandated by the health authority” of the AA.

Since April 12, 28 passengers arriving in Qamishli from Damascus were tested at an Asayish checkpoint outside the airport. “The preliminary results of the field examination showed two possible infections,” Ahmad Ibrahim, the director of the media office of the Kurdish Red Crescent told Syria Direct. However, it is not possible to confirm the cases “until the final results are made available from the PCR test, which is not yet in service as we are still in the phase of training staff on it”, said Ibrahim

Limited medical capacity
The areas of northeastern Syria under the management of the AA—home to approximately 3-4 million people—include 12 quarantine and isolation centers. Eight of them are “located in the cities of Hasakah, Qamishli and the cities between them,” according to Hassan, “hosting more than 100 people.”

The total number of beds in “hospitals and medical centers [in the AA areas] is approximately 400 to 500,” noted Hassan. According to numbers provided by the Health Authority, there are only 37 ventilators available for coronavirus patients. Most recently, “a Kurdish Red Crescent hospital in Hasakah with 120 beds was constructed,” said Ibrahim.

Since PCR tests are not in operation in the region, the Health Authority relies on conducting “preliminary tests,” Hassan told Syria Direct. “Anyone suspected of being infected will have their tests repeated and quarantined for 14 days. Also, anyone who they may have come into contact with will be tested” he added.

The WHO announced that it was continuing its response to urgent health concerns in northeast Syria, ensuring the provision of basic health care services in the region. However, Hassan denied receiving any “medical support from any party,” except for two “PCR devices” provided by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which were delivered this month. 

In light of limited medical capabilities, the AA has adopted several preventive measures to battle the spread of the virus, including the closure of borders, a mandatory curfew in northeast Syria as of March 23, and the prohibition of travel between cities and towns in the region, in addition to “sanitizing cities and main roads,” Hassan said. 

Further, the Health Authority and Kurdish Red Crescent formed a ‘crisis cell’ so that “a team of paramedics and nurses can be quickly directed to the location” of a suspected case, said Ibrahim. Once the team arrives at the site, they “ask WHO-approved questions about the person’s condition and symptoms, along with conducting a field examination,” Ibrahim added.

As of today, there are 42 registered cases of the coronavirus in Syria, including three deaths and six recoveries. However, at the same time, media and human rights sources have confirmed that the number of cases is higher, especially in the regime-controlled areas. 

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani

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