Medical personnel in Damascus, Syria, March 19, 2020 (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)
The Assad regime is hiding the rapid and deadly spread of Coronavirus across its areas of Syria.
On Friday, the regime’s Health Ministry reported another 61 cases, taking the official total to 1,060 with 48 deaths.
That is almost a doubling in the Ministry’s figure of 561 cases on July 22. However, medics, activists, and residents have said since March, when the first death was officially announced, that the actual toll is far higher.
And some regime officials are now confirming the claims. Dr. Ahmed Habbas, the assistant director of health in Damascus, has estimated that there could be up to 112,500 cases in Damascus Province alone. The estimate is based on assessments from burial offices, with an average of 800 deaths over eight days in the Syrian capital.
Social media is replete with condolences obituaries, and images of burials and deaths.
After reports of 193 deaths in Damascus on August 1, activist Amer Tayfour challenged, “We are asking the burial offices to announce the number of deaths instead of the Ministry of Health.”
Danny Makki, writing for the Middle East Institute, highlights other testimonies. Journalist Elham Obead noted four deaths on her street, with hospitals refusing to receive the ill before they perished.
Deaths are reported to be especially high among medical staff. They include Mahmoud Sabsoub, an obstetrician at the University of Damascus Maternity Hospital, and Rowan Sahtout, a nurse at the Al-Assad University Hospital. The director of Al-Assad Hospital, Dr. Hussein Mohamed, is in intensive care after contracting the virus.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry can minimize the crisis with the rationale that it is announcing only cases and fatalities confirmed by testing. Only 12,416 tests have been conducted, according to the World Health Organization. Because of the shortage of testing kits and other resources, post-mortem results list “suspected COVID-19” as a cause of death.
“A Desperate Situation — and It’s Going to Get Worse”
The regime shows no sign of reimposing restrictions that it lifted soon after they were imposed in March. Facing economic crisis including a 75% reduction in GDP, inflation, and currency collapse, Ministers promote the reopening the businesses and public spaces.
Two weeks ago, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Damascus University, Dr. Nubogh al-Awwa warned, “The continued recording of advanced infections at this pace will lead to a major problem during the coming period….The virus has become fiercer”.
But Awwa did not recommend any renewal of stay-at-home measures and restrictions, “Economic and living conditions do not allow for [this].” Instead, he advised “personal hygiene”, “continuous washing of hands”, wearing a mask in crowded places, and eating fruit and vegetables.
But even Awwa’s limited steps are difficult because of the economic situation. In a country where the average salary is about 150,000 Syrian pounds, basic face masks cost between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, hand sanitizer can cost up to 3,000, and oxygen cylinders sell for up to 150,000.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, President of the medical NGO Medglobal, summarizes:
“COVID-19 patients are suffering from a lack of oxygen, ventilators, and other medical equipment.
The best way to combat the virus spread is to do sufficient testing. So far not enough testing is being done — only those with money and connections are being tested. The daily infection rate is estimated around 2,000-3,000, but it could be more and it’s going to get worse.
It’s a desperate situation and bureaucracy is making things worse.