The Syrian war has just entered its tenth year and Idlib is currently the area most affected by the conflict. Daily bombing and shelling have displaced almost one million people from their homes in the space of just a few months. Since the start of the year, the fighting has put more than 80 hospitals out of service. Not so long ago, Idlib was a humanitarian emergency. Today it still is. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity to a situation that was already catastrophic.
Last week, Syria confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Since then, the number of cases has risen slightly, but so far, no positive cases have been identified in Idlib. However, our teams do not want to wait for this to happen before bracing themselves for it, because we know how concerning a spread of the disease in such place could be.
In developed countries such as Italy, Spain and the US, we are seeing public hospitals on the verge of collapse because of the spread of COVID-19. How, then, will Idlib’s health system cope? Healthcare in northwest Syria has been badly affected by the conflict and was already stretched to its limit before the spread of the new coronavirus was declared a pandemic.
Even if COVID-19 hasn’t yet spread in northwest Syria, people are already faced with a series of unanswered questions and impossible choices. Indeed, most recommendations for protecting people against the virus and slowing down its spread simply cannot be implemented in Idlib.
How can you ask people to stay at home to avoid infection? Where even is their home? We are talking about almost one million displaced people – at least one-third of Idlib’s total population – most of them living in tents in camps. They no longer have a home.
When a person shows symptoms of COVID-19, they are asked to self-isolate. Where is the space to do this in Idlib? Many families have to share tents with other families.
People are also asked to practice good hygiene measures and wash their hands frequently. But how can you practice good hygiene when you live surrounded by mud?
If you develop serious symptoms, you need to go to a hospital. But when only a handful of hospitals are open, and these hospitals are already overstretched and are completely unequipped to deal with a public health emergency, where can you actually go?
While preparing for a potential spread of COVID-19 in northwest Syria, medics too are faced with impossible choices. They need to prioritise constantly: to choose between getting trained up and ready in case the pandemic reaches Idlib and dealing with the never-ending flow of patients coming for treatment. Medical staff in Idlib are doing their very best with the little means at their disposal. I will never cease to be impressed by their capacity to stand firm in the face of so many difficulties, by their resilience, by their commitment to keep on working in these unbelievable conditions.