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Concern mounts of ‘catastrophic’ coronavirus outbreak in Syria

As the coronavirus takes a firmer hold across the Middle East, there is growing concern that Syria might face a major outbreak – a “catastrophic” prospect in a country ravaged by nine years of war. Amid conflicting reports about the spread of the virus on Syrian territory, medical professionals Al Jazeera spoke to expressed doubt…

Concern mounts of ‘catastrophic’ coronavirus outbreak in Syria

As the coronavirus takes a firmer hold across the Middle East, there is growing concern that Syria might face a major outbreak – a “catastrophic” prospect in a country ravaged by nine years of war.
Amid conflicting reports about the spread of the virus on Syrian territory, medical professionals Al Jazeera spoke to expressed doubt that the country’s weak healthcare system – already devastated by the conflict – would be able to cope with COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the virus.
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So far, there have been no officially registered cases of the virus. Mohammed Isa, a COVID-19 response advisory member of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which works on the ground in opposition-held northwest Syria, told Al Jazeera that there have been no confirmed cases in the area.
At a press conference in Damascus on Saturday, Syrian Health Minister Nizar Yazigi said all tests of suspected cases in government-controlled territory have been negative, according to SANA state news agency. Yazigi added that 16 Syrian passengers and crew members from a flight from Iraq had been put under quarantine in an isolation facility near the capital.
On Friday, the education ministry announced it was shutting down schools and universities as a precaution, while religious authorities suspended Friday prayers and sermons.
Isa, meanwhile, said opposition groups had tried to limit the movement of people at two checkpoints at the frontline in northern Syria, fearing that infection could come from government-held areas.

Can coronavirus be contained in conflict zones?

On March 1, the local authorities in northeast Syria, controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, closed down the Semalka border crossing with Iraq over outbreak fears.

The World Health Organization’s office in Damascus said in an email to Al Jazeera that “WHO did not receive any official report from the [International Health Regulations] focal point about confirmation of cases in Syria. However, WHO assesses the risk is very high in Syria.”
It added: “The government of Syria is working with the available capacities which is not at all matching countries which are not under conflict.”
The Syrian government’s capacity to cope with an outbreak has been “heavily impacted” by nine years of war, with only 50 percent of public hospitals being fully functional, according to the WHO statement.
Despite repeated denials by the Syrian government, there have been reports about the spread of the virus in areas under its control. On March 10, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 in Tartous, Damascus, Homs and Latakia provinces. According to the UK-based monitor’s sources, a strict gag order has been issued to forbid medical personnel from discussing the issue.
Reports of COVID-19 infections have also circulated on social media and  news outlets  and have been attributed to continuing travel between Syria and Iran, the regional epicentre of the outbreak. Syria is one of the few countries in the region which has not stopped flights to Iran, which has registered 14,000 confirmed cases and more than 700 deaths from the coronavirus.

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