AMMAN — Over the past two weeks, the Syrian government has announced a certain easing of coronavirus-related restrictions in a bid to restart economic activity as the holy month of Ramadan begins. 

On April 18, the government agreed to open up all commercial and business activity—with the exception of restaurants and cafes—through a program that allows businesses to operate on certain days of the week.

Each business is allowed to operate for one or two days per week, depending on the profession, but can only work from 8 AM to 3 PM. Additionally, the government has mandated that employees are required to wear protective clothing, gloves, and masks.

Gradual steps to restart economic activity
While schools and universities remain closed until May 2, and most travel restrictions remain in place, the government has been enacting gradual measures to restart business and commercial activity.

In mid-April, the Ministry of Finance stopped collecting taxes from restaurants and hotels and the government assured state employees that their salaries would be continued to be dispersed on time.

This week, the government announced that hardware and appliance stores can operate on Sundays from 8 AM to 3 PM and clothing and shoe stores can operate on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8 AM to 3 PM. 

Men’s and women’s hairdressers are also allowed to remain open from Sunday to Thursday provided that there is only one customer in the shop at all times and that hairdressers wear protective clothing similar to that of medical personnel.

Other businesses that are now allowed to return to work include tailors, car washes, book shops, sweet shops, cellphone shops, flower shops, and nurseries, among others. 

Economic motivations for opening markets
One of the most important reasons for reopening business and commercial activity is the immense economic pressure the government is facing in light of the coronavirus restrictions.

According to Dr. Ali Kanaan, the chair of the department of banking and insurance at Damascus University, the Syrian economy would lose an average 1 trillion Syrian pounds (SYP) a week—approximately $781.2 million, according to the black market rate of SYP 1285—if full lockdown measures remained in place. 

Business groups have also lobbied the government for more aggressive measures to reopen markets and kickstart the economy. 

Hassan Azqoul, a member of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, told the pro-government newspaper al-Watan that he made a request to reopen markets in the pre-curfew hours, with the exception of restaurants and cafes, during a meeting with the Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection.

Azqoul stressed that it would have “positive repercussions” for citizens and especially those working in the private sector. He also hoped that markets would be completely reopened in the near future, and not just on a rotational basis as per the current arrangement.

Preparing for Ramadan
Another member of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Manar al-Jallad, also pushed for similar measures to open markets in order to prepare for the month of Ramadan. 

The holy month usually witnesses an increase in consumer spending across Muslim-majority countries. A 2015 YouGov poll found that 60% of people in the Middle East and North Africa spend more money during Ramadan, largely on food, groceries, and other shopping. 31% of people defer major shopping purchases for sales during the month of Ramadan. 

However, there have been public debates surrounding the economic situation if markets are to completely reopen during Ramadan. 

Dr. Adnan Suleiman, the chair of the economics department at Damascus University, estimated that essential imported products such as rice and sugar would rise by up to 30% due to a weak foreign currency and increased demand. 

He suggested that the government should address these price hikes by increasing their market share of products through the Syrian Trading Establishment and focusing on delivering agricultural products directly from farms to their stores instead of going through intermediaries.

Azqoul, on the other hand, disagreed with the assessment, arguing that prices had reached their peak during the coronavirus crisis. However, even the Syrian state-run news agency, SANA, noted higher prices during their tour of the al-Salihiya market in Damascus.

In response to the reality of higher prices, Azqoul blamed them on merchants with “weak souls,” in contrast to “honorable merchants” who did not pass on increased costs to customers. 

An unofficial report by Qassioun, a weekly newspaper, noted that the price of food increased by 56% from January to March, before the effects of the coronavirus had been acutely felt in Syria. 

This suggests that there are underlying problems driving prices upwards that cannot solely be blamed on certain “weak” merchants or the virus, even though the latter has clearly exacerbated the issue.

Are easing of restrictions coming too early?
In addition to some of the economic arguments opposing the complete reopening of markets, such measures are also a public health concern. 

Some countries have begun to ease restrictions after extensive deliberations with public health officials and the scientific community. However, there is little evidence to suggest that Syria’s easing of restrictions has come following consensus within the scientific community, either nationally or internationally. 

As Inas Hamam, a communications officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) told Syria Direct, “a careful risk assessment and staged approach is needed to balance the benefits and potential harms of adjusting these measures, so as not to trigger a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and jeopardize the health of the population.” 

While Syria has taken a slightly staggered approach and is encouraging the use of protective equipment, the rush to open markets for Ramadan may still prove risky if there is not a robust plan to reinforce restrictions in the event of an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The Syrian government has received support from international organizations, such as the WHO in terms of “strengthening surveillance to rapidly identify, diagnose and treat cases; tracing contacts; protecting frontline health workers,” and “implementing health measures for travelers and raising public awareness,” Hamam said. 

She also confirmed to Syria Direct that “preparedness measures on COVID-19 testing at the national lab are in place.” However, the “WHO classifies Syria as a high-risk country in the Eastern Mediterranean region due to its torn health system.”

Until now, Syria has officially registered 42 cases and 3 deaths from COVID-19, although actual figures are assumed to be higher. Yet, given the weight of international sanctions and nine years of conflict in Syria, if the virus is to spread rapidly, the country’s health sector remains underprepared to deal with a high number of COVID-19 cases.