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Clinics close in al-Rukban as camp braces for Coronavirus

The 12,700 Syrians who reside in the al-Rukban internally displaced people’s camp find themselves totally unprepared to confront the virus. 

29 March 2020

AMMAN — As countries around the world enact stringent measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the 12,700 Syrians who reside in the al-Rukban internally displaced people’s camp find themselves totally unprepared to confront the virus. 

The “medical isolation” recommended by doctors worldwide is nothing new to the residents of al-Rukban who have been living in virtual isolation for years “due to the blockade imposed on us,” Imad Ghali, a media activist living in al-Rukban told Syria Direct

However, the emergence of the pandemic has deepened the blockade on the squalid camp squeezed into the no-man’s-land between Syria and Jordan.

Most alarmingly on March 18, as part of precautionary measures against Coronavirus, UNICEF shut down the only clinic providing camp residents with advanced medical care, such as surgery, the head of the Palmyra clinic in al-Rukban, nurse Shukry Shehab told Syria Direct

First a food, now a medical siege

The isolation of al-Rukban might delay or even prevent Coronavirus from reaching it, as the disease could only enter the camp via an “infected person or through the [contaminated] surfaces of food, medicine or other items,” Dr. Mustafa al-Daghim, the Pharmaceutical Quality Control officer in the Health Directorate of Idlib province, told Syria Direct

“The virus might survive on some surfaces, like nylon or plastic bags, for 72 hours given the right conditions concerning heat and humidity,” al-Daghim warned. 

However, the risk for this method of transmission is reduced, as the last joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy to reach al-Rukban was in February 2019. Further, Syrian government forces have tightened their control over smuggling routes, which are the only means of bringing in food and basic supplies to the camp, especially since Jordan prohibited the delivery of aid to the camp from its side of the border in October 2017. Two weeks ago, a smuggler was killed by government forces while trying to reach the camp, according to the director of the Civilian Affairs Bureau of the Revolutionary Commando Army (RCA), an armed opposition group operating in the US-controlled al-Tanf zone.

Still, the closure of the UNICEF-run medical clinic, which serviced the camp from its position five kilometers across the Jordanian border, forebodes another disaster. 

The camp has only “two clinics run by nurses and provides emergency services and some medicine, in addition to normal midwife services,” according to Shehab.

While the UNICEF-run clinic was the camp’s “only medical center with specialists capable of perform medical examinations, surgeries, and Caesarean-sections, in addition to being able to refer critical cases to specialized hospitals in Jordan,” Shahab added. 

The decision to close the clinic came as a shock to Fatima, one of four women in al-Rukban who are in their ninth month of pregnancy and need C-sections. “Both my baby and I are at risk,” Fatima explained to Syria Direct

On March 20, the Political and Public Relations Authority of Al-Rukban issued an urgent appeal addressed to the UN and the international community in general, calling for quick action to lift what it called the “Coronavirus siege,” which has only worsened the already miserable situation in the camp. 

The Authority also requested disinfectants, medical masks, and digital thermometers to detect fevers. Currently, the camp only has thermometers that detect fevers via the mouth or armpit, according to Shehab. 

Local efforts to combat a global threat

Given that just one case of Coronavirus within the camp could precipitate a “humanitarian disaster,” Ghali and other activists have started an awareness campaign to educate the residents of al-Rukban about the virus and the ways to prevent its spread. As part of the campaign, Shehab gave an educational lecture about the virus to dozens of camp residents on March 20.

Nurse Shukri Shehab delivers a lecture on the Coronavirus in front of dozens of residents, 20/03/2020 (Mahmoud Shehab)

In order to maximize the effectiveness of the campaign, trucks borrowed from a local opposition armed group—Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn—were driven throughout the neighborhoods of the camp to disseminate information about the virus. 

Since the camp lacks “materials for sterilization and protection, such as masks and gloves,” Shehab explained, homemade alternatives were proposed, such as “sewing masks from cotton fabrics and using apple cider vinegar or chlorine for sterilization.” 

Also, the RCA, which oversees the camp and its crossing points with the regime-held areas, has “initiated preventative measures to prevent the virus from reaching the [camp] from regime-held areas,” director of the Civilian Affairs Bureau of the RCA revealed. 

They added that “any goods smuggled from the regime-held areas will be held 30 kilometers away from the camp for 24 hours, and will be sterilized with chlorine before being brought in.” 

Many residents are also taking precautionary measures in their daily lives, such as “cutting down on socializing, avoiding hand-shakes, and disinfecting materials before bringing them into the house,” Muhammad al-Homsi told Syria Direct

Still, al-Homsi fears that these basic measures will “not be sufficient to prevent [the spread of] Corona if a case is discovered in the camp.” 

His fears might well be justified, as many camp residents “still do not care about the pandemic and live their lives normally,” Ghali said. He explained that this could be due to a number of factors, including the “lack of basic materials in the camp, including materials for prevention and sterilization.” 


The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by William Christou

This report reflects minor changes made on 29/03/2020 at 4:50 pm.

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