AMMAN — “There is no way on earth Syria is immune from a globally spread virus,” a resident of Damascus told Syria Direct when asked if they believed that there were no cases of coronavirus in the country.

To date, the Syrian government adamantly denies that there are any cases of coronavirus within its borders even as other sources, including the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported several cases. Damascus has also closed its borders with Jordan and Iraq, as well as suspended commercial flights from Iran.

“The government lives in denial; it’s bull****,” the Damascus resident continued, though they added that people are relatively calm in the capital city since there has not been any official announcement from the government. Some residents are coping with humor, sharing memes on Facebook mocking the government’s insistence that there are no cases of the disease in Syria. 

A widely-circulated meme on social media reading: “Breaking News: The World Health Organization- There are countries that are not announcing that they have Coronavirus cases.”

A widely-circulated meme on social media reading: “Breaking News: The World Health Organization- There are countries that are not announcing that they have coronavirus cases.” 

 

Memes aside, if there is a large outbreak of the coronavirus within Syria, the government would struggle to contain and treat patients afflicted with the virus. The healthcare system is crippled after years of war and sanctions that have left it with critical shortages in medicine and medical supplies. 

Though the mortality rate of coronavirus is relatively low—between 2 and 4 percent—the disease is incredibly infectious and has overwhelmed relatively well-equipped healthcare systems like Italy’s hospital system. Medical experts have suggested that early, preventative steps like mass testing are key to containing the spread of the virus, the opposite of Damascus’s current policy of denial of the imminent risk. 

Outside the government-controlled areas, the potential fallout of coronavirus is even worse. Densely-populated Idlib and northeastern Syria present the perfect conditions for transmission, with over a million people squeezed into populated internally displaced person (IDP) camps with little-to-no medical infrastructure. 

The spokesperson for the SIG-affiliated Directorate of Health in Idlib, Safwat Shiekhooni, told Syria Direct that they currently do not have kits to test for coronavirus. In the wake of better options, they are distributing posters and brochures as part of an awareness campaign about the importance of personal hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Even in the better organized, Turkish-controlled areas of northwestern Syria, there is no capacity to identify coronavirus and prevent its spread.

“We don’t have the capacity to analyze [for coronavirus], nor do we have PCR [real-time] testing kits,” a doctor from the city of al-Bab in northern Aleppo province told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. The doctor further specified that even if they had testing kits, they would have to send them to government-controlled hospitals for analysis. 

Can the factionalization of the country prevent the spread of coronavirus? 

Syria is largely segmented into three areas, the government-controlled areas in the south and center of the country, the northwest which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Turkish-backed opposition factions, and the northeast which is mostly controlled by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA). 

To an extent, this geographical and political separation limits the mass-movement of Syrians between the three sections and could mean that the appearance of coronavirus within government-controlled territory would not necessitate a spread to the northwest or northeast of the country. 

In line with this thinking, the AA has forbidden crossings to and from regime-controlled areas, as well as closed the Syria-Iraq Semalka border crossing to European passport holders and severely limited crossings for locals. 

The opposition-led Syrian Interim Government (SIG) has also banned the import of Chinese goods to northwest Syria. On March 11, the opposition-affiliated Association of Doctors in northern Syria called for crossings to the regime-controlled territory to be closed. 

However, official closures of crossing points—while reducing the number of people crossing to and from the regime-controlled territory—has pushed people to use unofficial means of transporting goods and people instead, circumventing health checks instituted at crossing-points.

Although the number of people crossing from regime-controlled territory might be less than if crossing points were open, the use of smuggling means that those currently crossing are not undergoing health testing. 

The presence of foreign forces in Syria is another risk factor for the spread of coronavirus. There are about 50,000 Iranian-backed fighters in Syria, who are coming from Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, in addition to Iran, according to the 2020 Military Balance Report. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which supervises these fighters, has had several cases of coronavirus already—if there is a back and forth movement of advisors from Iran, this could be an issue. 

Likewise, the deployment of Turkish soldiers, civil employees and regime soldiers in northern Syria presents a route for the future spread of the virus. However, the Syrian doctor clarified that while there is a constant movement of people through the al-Bab crossing, the Turkish border guards are vigilant in preventing the crossing of anyone who displays any symptoms. 

“Border guards check for a fever, and if there is one, they will put you in medical quarantine,” the doctor said. 

Economic isolation proves a mixed bag

Global financial markets are reeling from coronavirus as supply chains are being disrupted and investors are spooked at the specter of a pandemic. Syria, by contrast, has zero companies listed on the Dow Jones and has been isolated from the world economy for years due to international sanctions. Sanctions were first put on Syria in 1979 on charges of supporting terrorism, and then again in 2011 for human rights violations committed against the Syrian people. 

“For a country like Syria, which is more or less perfectly isolated from the rest of the world, the economic impacts of coronavirus will be very limited,” Dr. Karam Shaar, a senior economist in New Zealand’s public sector and independent Syrian economy analyst, told Syria Direct

In the event of a global outbreak of coronavirus which somehow does not spread to Syria, the two most important factors to consider are investor and consumer confidence, and exports, according to Shaar. Both are largely irrelevant to Syria, according to Shaar, as the economy is dominated by Bashar al-Assad and his small circle of cronies, and the contribution of exports to Syria’s economy is limited. 

Instead, Syria’s ability to import goods and obtain US dollars will be impacted, given its heavy reliance on China and Iran, the two countries most affected by coronavirus. 

Syria primarily imports technology, manufacturing components, and textiles from China, all of which are products with longer life-cycles. Accordingly, an increase in import costs would not significantly affect Syria in the short term, even though China is roughly tied with Turkey as its largest source of imports.

Still, Syria imports 60% of its antibiotics from China. Several Chinese antibiotics manufacturers have reduced or ceased production for the time being, raising serious concerns about drug shortages in the future, especially for a country like Syria which relies so heavily on China for its supply of medicine. India makes up a further 30% of Syria’s antibiotics imports, meaning that should India also face an outbreak of coronavirus and limit the export of drugs, Syria could face a serious problem in obtaining antibiotics. 

As for Iran, Syria relies on it for crude oil and financial aid. Given the oil glut in the market and Iran’s trouble finding buyers, it is unlikely that Iranian crude oil shipments to Syria will slow, according to Shaar. In fact, it is possible that shipments to Syria might actually increase, as Iran must extract a minimum amount of oil per day or it could affect the productivity of its oil fields, Shaar said. 

However, the financial aid Iran provides to Syria could be in danger in the short term. Shaar estimates that Iran gives Syria around $15 billion per year. With Tehran facing a nightmarish mix of low oil prices, sanctions and a coronavirus epidemic, it may significantly reduce the aid it gives Damascus, according to Shaar. 

“The problem with supporting the Syrian regime is it has to be in US dollars, and this is where the Iranian regime is suffering. I imagine that its foreign reserves have been cut in half in the last year,” Shaar said. He also added that the majority of the financial strain on Tehran comes from the drastic drop in oil prices, not  coronavirus, though the latter is certainly a concern. 

This article reflects minor changes made on 12/3/2020 at 10:41 am.