AMMAN — On Sunday, Damascus announced Syria’s first confirmed Coronavirus case, the first official admission that the country has also been afflicted by the global pandemic.
For weeks, Damascus has remained tight-lipped, leaving residents to sift through unconfirmed reports of hundreds of alleged Coronavirus cases and deaths in the country, according to one resident of Damascus. “The regime hides the cases and doesn’t disclose them,” a member of “Lens of a Young Damascene (LYD),” an organization that publishes images of daily life from within the capital, told Syria Direct.
“Clinging to life is a human priority, an innate characteristic. The people of the capital are trying to confront the epidemic by following safety procedures as closely as possible,” a resident of Damascus, Samer al-Ali, said under a pseudonym. “This economic standstill we are living in, which is worse than anything we’ve had before,” al-Ali told Syria Direct, “forces us to choose between isolation to protect ourselves from Corona and going out in search of our daily sustenance.”
Syrians ride a public bus in Damascus, 26/01/2020 (LYD)
Despite Damascus taking several precautionary measures to prevent the virus’s spread, including closing schools and universities, the head of the WHO’s infectious diseases prevention team, Abdul Naseer Abu Bakr, has warned of an “explosion” of Coronavirus cases in Syria and Yemen.
Syria is also facing challenges in procuring basic supplies to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. There are shortages of “masks, alcohol, and disinfectants, [and] large segments of the population cannot afford to buy these materials,” a Social Science researcher based in Damascus told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity due to security reasons.
Many of Damascus residents “can’t afford a bundle of bread, despite it still being cheap [600 Syrian Lira or $0.49],” al-Ali said.
A man standing next to a pile of bread in the neighborhood of a-Shaghoor in Damascus, 15/12/2019 (LYD)
Commenting on LYD’s pictures that Syria Direct has re-published here, al-Ali said that he sees “these pictures and worse, everywhere I turn; widespread deprivation,” adding that “those who are helpless, live on the minimum, forgetting about things like fruit and meat. All that matters to them is ensuring the most essential needs.”
According to an August 2019 UNICEF report, “four out of five Syrians live below the poverty line, causing children to take extreme measures to survive—such as becoming child laborers, soldiers and brides—all to help ensure their families’ basic survival.”
Further, the recent economic crisis in Syria and the rapid depreciation of the currency have caused a sharp uptick in the prices of basic goods and services. To help cope with the rapid inflation, the government has subsidized basic goods like sugar, rice, tea and allowed them to be purchased through the “smart card” program, previously designated for purchasing fuel and cooking gas.
However, “you have to stand for hours in long lines to get the subsidized goods, and maybe you won’t get them,” al-Ali said. Further, “getting these goods, in addition to gas cylinders, is even more difficult amid fears of the Coronavirus outbreak.”
Syrians waiting in front of a gas distribution center in Damascus, 01/25/2020 (LYD)
“Together Against Corona”
As Damascus undertook a series of steps to confront Coronavirus, the state news agency SANA published pictures of deserted streets and closed shops in different cities in government-held territory under the slogan “Together Against Corona.”
Photographs show a closed market in Damascus, 22/03/2020 (SANA)
The fact that grocers are exempted by the government-mandated lockdown might explain why people have not “rushed to stock up” on food items, the social science researcher said. However, the fact that people are not stockpiling might also be due to the fact that they “can’t buy enough [all at once], whereas those who had money already bought [enough goods],” she added.
This financial disparity also extends to the preparedness of Damascus residents.
The “affluent neighborhoods of Damascus have complied with the home-quarantines more than the poor, informal settlements,” according to the social science researcher. This is mainly due to the “flow of information, the [level] of education, and the fact that the rich follow the news, contrary to the poor,” she added. Further, “the rich have more to lose, while the poor have nothing to lose.”
It seems as if “poverty in Damascus is the greatest misfortune, especially in the case of those women who don’t have a breadwinner,” the LYD member said.
In something of cruel irony, while calls are being made to stay home, entire families are sleeping on the streets,” he said, adding that LYD does not publish pictures of those families out of respect.
A man reads the Quran on the side of the road in the neighborhood of Bab Srijeh in Damascus, 11/1/2020 (LYD)
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by William Christou