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The Challenges Of Preparing For Coronavirus In Syria

The Idlib Health Directorate and Civil Defense Crews along with local charities carry out disinfection works at a tent city in Idlib, Syria, on March 20.
The Idlib Health Directorate and Civil Defense Crews along with local charities carry out disinfection works at a tent city in Idlib, Syria, on March 20.

The World Health Organization has begun working with doctors to test for coronavirus in opposition-held areas of Syria. So far, three tests have been conducted.

The samples — delivered across the Syrian border be tested in a lab in Turkey — all were negative. The WHO says that next week, 300 testing kits are expected to be delivered to a laboratory in Idlib province, so health workers in the rebel-held area can conduct tests themselves.

Next week will also see a shipment of 10,000 examination gloves, 1,200 gowns, 10,000 surgical masks, 500 respirator masks, and 900 face shields, in addition to 200 protective goggles.

From Idlib city, Dr. Munzer Khalil says a coronavirus outbreak would pose a huge challenge.

"In all of northern Syria, there are 200 ICU beds. And in case the virus spreads explosively, then we need thousands of ICU beds, which is certainly not available," Khalil says.

In camps in northern Syria, hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting live in squalor. One aid worker recently drove around a rainy camp and described "dirt and mud and frustration, and displacement, and tents."

"And on top of everything," she says, "we're scared of coronavirus and we don't know what God has written for us. If it comes, God forbid, it will affect many people because the precautions being taken here are very little and very weak."

Social distancing and rigorous hand washing are all but impossible in the camps. There is already an outbreak of swine flu in Syria's northwest.

In Idlib province, medical facilities have been hit by airstrikes, and most medical professionals have left Syria altogether.

"It's only a question of time when we will see confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Syria, because we know that every neighboring country and territory they have confirmed cases," says Hedinn Halldorsson with the WHO.

Meanwhile, in the capital Damascus, the WHO has supplied testing kits to the government, which says that of 103 tests conducted so far, all were negative. There are challenges there, too. Social distancing measures have been announced, but recent state TV footage from Damascus showed people out shopping.

One other area of concern is the Kurdish-controlled northeast. Local officials tell NPR they have no resources to test, their borders are sealed and so far they're not sure where to turn for help.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.