COVID-19 and war, a looming disaster in the Middle East

As powerful countries like the United States are bracing themselves for a shortage of medical supplies, displaced people in North west Syria are already suffering shortage of much more basic needs. Things as simple as clean water are more of a concern there than the new Corona Virus, COVID-19. In the city of Idlib in north west Syria, more than a million people were displaced when violence flared again with a renewed military campaign by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. Syria confirmed its first death on Sunday and nine people were tested positive with the respiratory illness around the country. For weeks, Damascus denied any cases of COVID-19 in the country. Syrians’ main fear is the huge numbers of Iranians fighting alongside the Syrian regime. Iran is the region’s worst hit country with the Corona outbreak. More than 2,600 people died in Iran because of the virus.

The country hit by nine years of civil war has a very fragile health system. Many hospitals were destroyed as warring parties would usually target each other’s health facilities. According to a report by The Guardian, almost 61 medical facilities became out of service in Idlib over the past year, and medicine, equipment and beds are already dangerously scarce. According to the World Health Organization (WHO_, 70% of total worldwide attacks on health care facilities, ambulances, services and personnel have occurred within Syria. Many facilities were targeted multiple times. According to the U.N., one-third of Syria’s hospitals have become out of service since the conflict began and two-thirds of the country’s medical personnel have either fled or been unable to continue working. Deaa, resident doctor in Damascus said all medical staff in the capital are on high alert. “We are living in a country were the health system is already fragile… of course we are all on high alert right now”, Deaa said.

Syrian families in Canada are keeping a close eye on their loved ones back home. I spoke to Wafaa Alzoubai about the situation. Wafaa said: “the situation is worse than we imagined. They are living in a lockdown with extremely limited access to food. I have tried to send some money to my sister in Syria and still waiting to find a way to get it delivered to her”

However, the international response is very slow to non-existent. WHO has sent testing kits to the Syrian government but seems to be forgetting about thousands in the camps. People in North-West Syria say they barley have access to clean water and food and wondering how they should wash their hands frequently if they cannot shower their kids for weeks.

GlobalMedic, a non-profit organization in Etobicoke was conducting a workshop last month towards the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, where members and volunteers were packing emergency food kits for Syrian Families and refugees in the north west of Syria. The GlobalMedic Coordinator of aid deliveries to North West Syria, Kristen Pelletier showed us another kit prepared by the organization, the Family Emergency Kit or (FEK). FEK is a hygiene kit that provides tooth paste, toothbrushes, soap, and a water purification unit. After non-essential businesses in Ontario are asked to close in response to the COVID-19 outbreak organizations in Canada are trying to find new ways to continue their AID programs overseas.

In Yemen, the situation is even worse. The country that was one of the region’s poorest even before the war is already suffering from a cholera outbreak. A pandemic the size of COVID-19 is absolutely beyond the bearing of the country’s collapsed health system. Up until march 26, World health Organization said there are no recorded cases of COVID-19 in Yemen. As fears of the new virus reaching the country grew, the United states cut its aid to Yemen.

Several international health organizations, including Doctors without Borders and WHO, have warned that lack of access to clean water and soap in Yemen blocks efforts to battle the virus and threatens the lives of millions of people. As the country braces itself for the worse, the United States decided to cut health aid to Yemen. The US administration announced on Friday that the new measure is a “necessary response to longstanding interference” of the Houthis. Saudi Arabia has agreed to a ceasefire with the Houthis, in an attempt to confront the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The Houthis welcomed the Saudi announcement. The Houthi Movement ousted the internationally-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2015. Saudi Arabia, alarmed by the shia movement taking control of its southern neighbor, interfered in Yemen to restore Hadi to power. Ever since, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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Mohammad Haj Ali
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