Fear of coronavirus stalks camps for Syrians displaced by war
Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the "White Helmets", disinfect a school where displaced Syrians are sheltered in the town of Maaret Misrin in Idlib. AFP
In a camp in northwestern Syria, Abdallah Yassin listens to a doctor explain how to avoid coronavirus infection, desperately hoping it will never reach his tent of 14 people.
"If the epidemic spreads in the camps, it will be a disaster," the 57-year-old grandfather says. Three million people live in Syria's last major rebel bastion of Idlib, many of them families who fled homes elsewhere in Syria and are now reduced to living in camps without basic amenities.
Almost one million more have been thrown onto the roads since December, after the government launched a deadly offensive that has battered the region's already dilapidated healthcare system. The government on Sunday announced Syria's first officially confirmed coronavirus case, sparking fears of the implications for the war-torn country, where many still live outside the control of the government.
As part of the effort to prevent the worst in the rebel-held Idlib region, a doctor is visiting Yassin's camp in Kafr Lusin to raise awareness. Always shield your sneezes, he tells a dozen people gathered around him, either listening carefully or reading flyers.
Before he hands out surgical masks, the doctor from Turkish aid group the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) reminds them that an infected person can show no outward symptoms for up to two weeks.
But Yassin is unconvinced that this advice will be enough to help. "Instead of coming here and lecturing us, why don't they set up a clinic for all these people," says the patriarch with a greying beard and a traditional red-and-white chequered headscarf. "There are thousands of people here. We sleep 14 in the same tent," he says, trying to convey his alarm.
The virus is the latest threat to the three million people who live in jihadist-ruled Idlib, where a fragile truce has largely halted the government's bombardment since the start of the month. The region is dominated by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, though other rebel groups are also present.
The IHH doctor, Ibrahim Tlass, agrees that the prospect of an outbreak in the camps is worrying. "They would be the areas most at risk if the virus did start spreading," he says. "That's where the population density is highest and where there's the least awareness about the issue," he tells AFP.
Across the region, aid workers are bracing for a possible wave of the illness. For a start, a laboratory in Idlib received 300 diagnosis kits on Tuesday and has started using them, a doctor said. "But these kits are still very few in view of the population density we have here," said doctor Mohammad Shaham Mekki.
The World Health Organization has said it hopes to send in 2,000 more tests soon. In case there are positive cases, three hospitals with intensive care units have been modified as isolation units equipped with ventilators, it said.
But in another tent settlement near the Idlib town of Harem, 40-year-old grandmother Umm Khaled says she still fears for the other six members of her family. "There are no medical services or medicines in the camp," she says.
She says she has taught the children to wash their hands with soap and water, and turn away from other people when they sneeze. She also does her best to regularly bathe the children and keep the family's tent clean.
But it's difficult to maintain basic hygiene when there is not enough water to go around. "Sometimes there's a water cut," she explains. "We don't have enough to bathe the children and clean the tent every day.