Crammed into camps, displaced Syrians fear spread of coronavirus

Ahmad al-Atrash
·4-min read

Hassan Sweidan is terrified he will catch Covid-19 in the overcrowded displacement camp in northwest Syria he calls home, even more so as medical staff in the region have become sick.

Humanitarian workers fear any further rise in novel coronavirus cases would be disastrous in northwest Syria, where almost 1.5 million people live in overcrowded camps or shelters, often with poor access to running water.

In an informal settlement in Idlib, the country's last major rebel stronghold, Sweidan said he and other displaced Syrians did not stand much chance against the disease.

"We live in a camp all crammed in together. If someone talks to his family, all the neighbours can hear it," said Sweidan, who is in his forties and has an existing health condition.

If someone gets sick, "it's hardly the disease's fault," the father of six added.

In the encampment in Qah, a few makeshift solar panels shimmer on the canvas roofs of endless tiny breeze-block rooms where families have settled after being uprooted by war.

Resting after helping a friend build a small room to serve as a shop, Sweidan said he hopes he does not have to take anyone in his family to the local hospital.

"Hospitals are overcrowded. People have started to be scared of doctors and nurses, who they think might be infected, with all the sick people going to them."

- 'End our misery' -

Sweidan, who fled his home seven years ago, especially fears catching the Covid-19 disease as he suffers from a chronic liver condition.

"One of my relatives got it a while back, and I'm really scared because I have no immunity," he said.

The Idlib bastion -- now dominated by a group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate -- has been battered by years of war.

Local and international humanitarian workers are working to contain the virus, but cases are still on the rise.

"In the northwest, confirmed cases have increased six-fold over the last month, with cases also rising in displacement camps and settlements," Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

The health authorities in northwest Syria have officially announced 5,075 cases of Covid-19 so far, including 42 deaths.

Of those, more than 860 cases have been recorded among healthcare staff and almost 330 people in the camps, figures showed Wednesday.

Seated cross-legged on the floor, as she crushed small green olives one by one with a brick, 80-year-old Ghatwa al-Mohammad said she and her family felt like sitting ducks.

"We're scared of the disease but we don't dare leave," she added.

"We're so confused about what we should do. If only God would have us die and end our misery."

Of the three million people living in Idlib, around half live in makeshift homes and tents after escaping the fighting during Syria's nine-year civil war.

The latest Russia-backed regime offensive on the region last winter killed around 500 civilians and forced nearly one million people to flee their towns and villages.

Since a ceasefire brokered by Moscow and rebel-backer Ankara came into force in March, only around 200,000 people have returned home.

- Distancing 'near impossible' -

At the Idlib health directorate, doctor Yahya Nehmeh said they had asked residents to observe social distancing.

But he admitted that was "near impossible" in the hundreds of informal settlements dotting the region.

Few in the camps wear masks. Many cannot afford to buy face coverings, or to change them regularly, let alone disinfectant hand gels.

For most, food, water, medicine and school supplies are far more important.

"The regime and Russian forces are responsible for displacing these people and for the disastrous conditions in which they now live," Nehmeh said.

Back in the camp, Mohammad al-Omar, 40, agreed that asking people to self-isolate in a tent city was not realistic.

"They tell us, 'Don't go out. Don't cause overcrowding'. But we live in tents barely half a metre (yard) apart," said the father of four, who was displaced by the conflict eight years ago.

"They give all of us who are older than five one mask as if that were enough. But it's not."

Omar, who works as the driver of a water truck, said he cannot stay inside the camp as he needs to earn money.

"If I stay put in my tent, how will I live? How will I eat?"

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