AMMAN — As of yesterday, 8,139 cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had been recorded in Idlib province and the northern countryside of Aleppo province. The last stronghold of the Syrian opposition in northwest Syria has exceeded the number of cases in both the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA)’s territory (3,948 cases) and the regime-controlled areas (5,461 cases).

This drastic rise in the number of cases in northwest Syria comes as the area is still suffering from airstrikes by the Assad regime forces and its allies. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documented 46 separate attacks on civilian infrastructure that amount to “war crimes” committed by the Syrian government and Russian forces during their latest military campaign, between April 2019 and March 2020, on the northwest area of Idlib province. 

“We have reached a point that we no longer fear death,” Ahmad Bakkour, a resident of the city of Idlib, told Syria Direct. “We have seen it in different aspects of our lives. Like many others, I feel that death is approaching us with or without coronavirus,” he added. 

“I do not wear a mask, but I do wash my hands and abide by social distancing as much as possible.”

A vendor sits in a market in the city of Idlib awaiting customers, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

A vendor sits in a market in the city of Idlib awaiting customers, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

According to a recent public survey by the Relief Experts Association (UDER), a community health organization that currently focuses primarily on raising awareness regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in northwestern Syria, “around 90% of the population believe that coronavirus is real and not a conspiracy.”

Although this is “promising,” Dr. Hani Taleb, UDER’s Executive Director, told Syria Direct, “the same survey revealed that less than 5% of the population use a mask to protect themselves from the virus at all times.” 

“Despite knowing that not everybody can afford to buy masks,” Taleb added, “convincing people that it is the most important way to protect themselves against the virus motivates them to use any other alternatives, such as a cloth, to cover their faces in public.”

Volunteers at a humanitarian organization prepare food baskets in the city of Idlib, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Volunteers at a humanitarian organization prepare food baskets in the city of Idlib, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

According to Bakkour, “whoever can afford a mask in Idlib is wearing it because it has become trendy.” He added, “They remove it whenever they run into a relative or acquaintance on the street to kiss them.” 

One of the “reasons behind the rise in [COVID-19] cases is that people do not understand the point of wearing a mask, and that it is necessary to relinquish some social customs such as kissing and hugging,” he added.

But while “changing social behavior is a complicated process,” Dr. Taleb said, “it is not enough only to give out awareness-raising brochures. We first need to change people’s beliefs around how dangerous the virus really is so that they receive the information that we’re spreading positively.”

“When an individual learns the magnitude of the danger, their behavior changes, and they start to implement precautionary measures more seriously,” Taleb added.

Volunteers at a humanitarian organization prepare food baskets in the city of Idlib, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Men and women attend an awareness-raising seminar on COVID-19 in Kafarlosin Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the countryside of Idlib province, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Potential sick persons transmitting the virus despite knowing how dangerous it is makes the situation even worse. According to Mustafa al-Suweid, who was displaced from South Damascus, this is due to the area’s dire living conditions.

“Despite having experienced symptoms of the coronavirus more than once, I could not stay at home and isolate myself,” al-Suweid told Syria Direct, because “if I did, my children would have died of starvation instead of coronavirus.”

Men and women attend an awareness-raising seminar on COVID-19 in Kafarlosin Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the countryside of Idlib province, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Displaced children in Kafarlosin Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the countryside of Idlib province wear masks that were distributed to them by a humanitarian organization, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Displaced children in Kafarlosin Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the countryside of Idlib province wear masks that were distributed to them by a humanitarian organization, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

A young man roaming in a market in his wheelchair in the city of Idlib, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

A young man roaming in a market in his wheelchair in the city of Idlib, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Girls walk in a street in the city of Dana in the northern countryside of Idlib province, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Girls walk in a street in the city of Dana in the northern countryside of Idlib province, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Al-Saa’a Square in downtown Idlib crowded with people, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Displaced boys wearing masks in Kafrdariyan Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the northern countryside of Idlib province, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

Displaced boys wearing masks in Kafrdariyan Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the northern countryside of Idlib province, 26/10/2020 (Syria Direct)

 

This photo story was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Ahmad Elamine.