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Syrians Left Unarmed Facing the Virus Arriving with Visitors and Militants

Fidaa Nehme
Syrian Journalist
March 30, 2020
Um-Rasheed doesn’t fear the terrifying Corona virus. She smiles shyly through her sadness, as she tries, with difficulty, to pronounce its name, remembering how one of them had shouted to the crowd, at the top of his lungs, in front of the bakery doors, “Corona has reached the immigrants.” Everyone smiled, looking towards the direction of the palace..”

Time stops with the launch of the night-time curfew in Damascus, and the Syrian homes shut away their pain. Cellphone notifications accelerate as the boredom sets during the long nights. Videos, voice notes, and photos circle in an orbit, attempting to disassemble the grips of the mysterious virus, that spreads invisibly through the droplets in sneezes, coughs, friendly handshakes, intimate conversations, and even compliments.

In the rough imprisonment in which all of humanity is participating, your body parts need to be kept isolated, and you must retire the pleasures of life. But in Syria, which has been subject to various forms of imprisonment, intimidation and terrorism, the virus is still a virtual reality. The family that will meet through the Internet, will discuss how to help their elderly mother who is residing in Damascus after suffering from a broken leg, but won’t touch on the need to isolate her for fear of catching the virus

“The situation is terrible, and we’re heading towards the unknown,” said the refugee daughter in France. Her sister, a refugee in Sweden, replied, “after the stopping of public transport, Um-Ahmad is no longer able to come from Dahdal, in the south of Damascus to mom’s house in the heart of the capital… and she can’t pay 2,000 SYP for a taxi.” Um Ahmad used to help their mother with household chores before she broke her leg, and took care of her for several hours a day. Their expat brother, who is living in the US, suggested searching for a nurse who can permanently reside with their mom and offered to cover the costs. The remaining brother, in Damascus, cautioned that the country is paralyzed in the face of the Corona pandemic, and that all the proposed solutions are difficult and complicated to implement, and that their mother required urgent assistance. The discussion ended by leaving the matter in God’s hands, as he is the sponsor of facilitation.

With these calls to seize opportunities, the market was flooded with ineffective medical supplies and sanitizers, where only 20%-ethyl alcohol sanitizers were available in most pharmacies (the percentage of ethyl alcohol should exceed 60% to eliminate COVID 19)

The facilitation expected from heaven is hampered by the war that has been ongoing for nine years, which saw Syrians scattered all over the world, and those who remained have fallen into an abys of extreme poverty in an occupied and devastated country, ruled by a military regime that drains the blood of its people to keep its grip on its eroding legacy. When the global epidemic arrived, the Syrians hadno one but God to help them face this mysterious virus that shook the pillars of the world’s most powerful health systems.

Um-Rasheed, who supports a disabled husband and five children through her work embroidering Abayas in the ‘Medhat Pasha’ market, has cried until her eyes swelled over what happened to her during the war, and for fear of the upcoming days that do not seem to be promising. Um-Rasheed said that the owner was generous enough to give her half of her salary before informing her of the closure of his business; he also compassionately granted her a box of food supplies that could last ten days.  But what would she do if the business remains closed? “If I don’t work, my family and I would die of hunger.” Um-Rasheed doesn’t fear the terrifying Corona virus. She smiles shyly through her sadness, as she tries, with difficulty, to pronounce its name, remembering how one of them had shouted to the crowd, at the top of his lungs, in front of the bakery doors, “Corona has reached the immigrants.” Everyone smiled, looking towards the direction of the palace..”

The drained Syrians find it difficult to estimate the severity of the emerging Coronavirus, despite the general panic caused by exaggerations, rumors, lies, and misleading preventative guidelines flowing unchecked through social media platforms, in conjunction with reports of the spread of the epidemic in the world and neighboring countries, before the official announcement declaring it’s arrival in Syria.

It can be said that the panic has garnered the social environment ready to believe everything that is shared or broadcast except for the data provided by the Ministry of Health, not only due to there being no trust in the regime, but also because there’s an implicit conviction that the regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its people, displaced more than half of them and destroyed their greatest cities,  would not be shaken if a new epidemic kills hundreds of thousands of them now.

Many Syrians consider that the precautionary measures taken by the regime’s government will not limit the spread of the epidemic in the first place, especially since it started relatively late compared to Lebanon, the neighboring country and Damascus’s main gate to the world abroad; Lebanon began its procedures in the month of February while Syria began in the middle of this month. During this delay period, delegations of pilgrims continued to flow in from Iran and Iraq without medical examinations at the airports and border points, and then disseminated throughout the markets of Damascus and many other Syrian regions, even when Iran was considered a central hotbed of the virus. Not to mention the ongoing entry of Iranian militia and Revolutionary Guards from the Boukamal crossing until March 27, despite the announcement of the closure of the borders, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At the time when movement between the rural areas and the cities was banned, days after the application of a partial curfew from 7 pm until 6 in the morning was imposed, gatherings at the doors of supermarkets, bakeries, and grocery stores escalated; the rhythm of movement was set according to the curfew, whereby traffic in the streets increases during the day, reaching its peak with 7pm approaching. A scene reduced by a sarcastic comment that has since made an appearance on everyone’s mouths: “We need to catch up before the virus starts spreading at seven.”

Ghiyath al-Dimashqi, 60 years old, who seemed happy to close down the “money laundering” cafes and restaurants that had mushroomed during the war, occupying the sidewalks and strangling the city with the smells of hookahs, firmly confirmed that the government did not decide to close down gathering spaces until after the epidemic became worse, expecting to hear “shocking numbers” revealed in the next few days, to reinforce the regime’s attempts to break its isolation, “which was done when the United Arab Emirates hurried to its rescue, under the pretext of helping the Syrian people.”

Medical sources disagreed with this hypothesis, claiming that there is a trend in the healthcare sector that had suggested the possibility of an epidemic spreading in Syria before China had announced its discovery, and that Syrians had acquired herd immunity, noting that “hundreds of Syrians were exposed to severe, and unusual cases of influenza in the past winter that lead to death without knowing the virus that caused it”. The sources, who declined to be named, added that “the health sector hopes that this possibility is correct, which will help Syrians avoid applying a complete curfew, the implications of which will be disastrous and difficult for the regime and the people to bear.”

Marah, a relief activist, recently engaged in health awareness campaigns, appearing confident while she spoke about the inefficiency of awareness campaigns if they are not accompanied by medical aid, since the people on the frontlines of the risk of spreading the virus are the poor, who exceed 80% of the citizens, and most of them do not have the purchasing capability to obtain prevention tools such as masks, gloves and sanitizers in the first place. Marah confirms that some people wash and reuse masks and gloves and reuse them, seeing as the price of a box of masks (50 pieces) has jumped from 1500 liras to 15000 liras, within two months, and the price of alcohol and sanitizers has doubled. She added that the government and NGOs are not only incapable of distributing these supplies for free, but they condone unethical trade practices of them; There are sewing workshops that have pooped up that produce masks that do not conform to the sanitary standards. She also noted that one of the Syrian industrial businessmen was quick to talk about the possible spread of the Corona epidemic in the Middle east, calling a local radio to seize “the opportunity of high demand for medical masks to revive the destroyed textile industry and attract foreign investment.” With these calls to seize opportunities, the market was flooded with ineffective medical supplies and sanitizers, where only 20% of ethyl alcohol sanitizers was available in most pharmacies (the percentage of ethyl alcohol should exceed 60% to eliminate COVID 19,) with labelling on the package that says “95%”, knowing fully well that that is too high a percentage for personal use.

Marah remarked that through her work she was allowed to see the reality of the quarantine centers that were being prepared in the governorates for the isolation of those infected with the Corona virus, and that interest in them increased after the video scandal of the Al-Duwair Quarantine Center, dedicated to the quarantining of those suspected of being infected coming from outside the country, as the video showed that the center lacked the simplest requirements for hygiene and sanitation. This took place after the statement of the WHO representative in Syria, Nima Saeed Abd, on a state news channel, where he said that health care procedures taken in Syria “are great and excellent!” Marah added, “The equipment in the quarantine centers, even after receiving attention, are much less than adequate for combatting the coronavirus pandemic”.

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