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‘Like a horror movie’: major COVID-19 outbreak in Damascus and failed response

‘Like a horror movie’: major COVID-19 outbreak in Damascus and failed response

Growing stories of overwhelmed hospitals, afflicted family members, and increasing deaths are presenting disturbing evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak spiraling out of control in government-held areas. A major response is urgently needed to save potentially thousands of lives—yet instead, the Syrian government has chosen to hide the crisis rather than confront it with serious measures. As of August 4th, the Syrian Ministry of Health had reported just 892 confirmed cases and 46 deaths, far less than what many health care workers on the ground estimate. Actual numbers are impossible to know due to a severe shortage of testing; as of July 24, the MoH reported just 12,416 tests performed, one of the lowest per capita testing rates in the world.

There is an estimated 112,500 Covid-19 cases in Damascus and its suburbs according to Assistant Director of Health Dr. Ahmed Habas, this is a real crisis that has spread immeasurably over the past few weeks.
— Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) August 3, 2020

In the face of this crisis, the Syrian government has reportedly told doctors, victims, and journalists to stay silent. In one interview, a medical doctor told NPR: “There are continuous warnings against doctors speaking on this issue… we are scared, all the time”, noting the surveillance of hospitals by intelligence officers. Meanwhile, a journalist at a state-owned media outlet is said to have been barred from reporting on hundreds of COVID-related deaths occurring in the span of just one week.

Against this information blackout, SJAC interviewed several Damascenes who have had loved ones affected to shed light on the situation inside government-held areas. Their experiences all corroborate existing accounts of a major outbreak and public health crisis—one that has been exponentially exacerbated by the government’s willful negligence.

“It was like a horror movie”

  • Interviewees all described crowded and chaotic conditions in hospitals across Damascus, with one interviewee likening scenes to those in a science fiction or horror movie. The interviewee noted that he saw many patients lying in the corridors of the hospital without any care, and several people falling on the ground while waiting in the corridors. There was no spacing or any notable health measures to stop the spread of the disease.
  • One woman interviewed by SJAC stated that her aunt was taken by ambulance to al-Mowasat Hospital after suffering from COVID-19 symptoms at the beginning of August. There, her family was told that the crowded hospital did not have any ventilators available. Her family attempted to secure a ventilator from outside of the hospital in various ways, but in the morning, the victim died due to the lack of necessary medical care.
  • The relative of another interviewee also died in the same week due to a lack of medical care. The victim had been suffering from acute respiratory symptoms but her family was unable to find an intensive care room available for her after searching multiple hospitals in Damascus. After the victim passed away, the family was told that her body needed to be tested for COVID-19 if they wished to bury her outside Najha cemetery, where all COVID victims must be buried. Because the test required several days, her relatives decided to carry her remains to Najha cemetery so that her body could be buried as soon as possible in accordance to Islamic custom. However, as a result of the large number of deaths, no female employee from the burial office in Damascus was available. The victim’s relatives were forced to prepare the victim for burial themselves without protection against possible infection from COVID-19 and other diseases.
  • Some relatives of the deceased reportedly paid 3 million Syrian pounds (about 1,000 US dollars) in order to falsify death reports and write that the patients had not died as a result of COVID-19, so that they could bury their relatives in family graves and not in Najha cemetery.
  • Multiple interviewees reported that their affected loved ones were turned away from hospitals despite displaying symptoms of COVID-19. One man whose father and mother are currently ill with COVID-like symptoms stated that no hospital in Damascus, private nor public, would take them in despite his mother’s old age and poor condition.
  • The lack of services for ordinary Syrians has left many with the impression that the government is prioritizing the elite by reserving spaces in hospitals for the treatment of officers and senior officials in Damascus. Interviewees state that they were told by hospitals to stay at home and try to fight the disease by primitive means, or to find nurses to provide at home care.

Business as usual

The stories recorded by SJAC are just a few among countless other similar stories being shared by Syrians. Yet despite the growing anguish, the government’s response has remained woefully muted. In August, it reintroduced some lockdown measures, including the banning of Eid Al-Adha prayer services, funeral prayers, and shutting down funeral and wedding venues. However, critical measures such as curfews or stay at home orders have been avoided, while efforts at contact tracing appear altogether abandoned. Worse, it continues to implement policies that are counteractive, including prohibitive fees for testing ($100 fee for a PCR test), and the creation of quarantine centers with deplorable conditions ripe for internal spread.

Meanwhile, in a leaked audio recording, one doctor working in Al Mouwasat Hospital appeared resigned to the crisis, claiming that most cases were not ‘serious’. Referring to his medical staff, he stated: “everyone is going to get sick because no one has immunity. There is no escaping this virus.”

The government’s willingness to censor information and allow its citizens to suffer should come as no surprise. Rather, it is effectively a continuation of Damascus’ policies on health care through 10 years of conflict. This is the same government that has deliberately bombed hundreds of hospitals and killed countless doctors throughout the country; the same government that has long-neglected public health infrastructure; and the same government that has previously attempted to conceal a polio outbreak before deliberately blocking polio vaccinations in opposition-held areas.

It would be foolish to expect that the government would change course on its disastrous response in the face of further suffering. But the international community would be complicit if it continues to simply accept the government’s false numbers, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The World Health Organization, which has so far censored itself from public criticism of the government response, must do more to pressure the government to unveil the full scope of the problem. Only then can the international community, and Syrians themselves, adopt an effective response. Without increased pressure from the international community, an untold number of Syrians will suffer and die silently of this vicious disease.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected] and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe to SJAC’s newsletter for updates on our work.