The Covid-19 novel coronavirus epidemic is on the brink of becoming a pandemic, with more countries announcing infections and quarantines. How will it affect conflict zones?
The spread of the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, shows no sign of abating as more countries announce drastic measures to combat its spread, such as Italy putting the entire country under lockdown.
While first world economies seem better suited to cope with the crisis, distributing masks, screening passengers and quarantining suspected cases at home or in hospital intensive care units –– going as far as to building new hospitals –– the world’s war zones have no such luxuries.
There have been no known Covid-19 cases in war-torn Syria, for example. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no coronavirus present in the country, just that it hasn’t been detected there yet.
The nine-year war has taken its toll on the country, especially with the regime forces and Russia bombing civilian locations, including hospitals.
Were coronavirus cases to appear in Syria, containment and care would be extremely difficult because of a scarcity of hospitals and the personnel to serve the public.
Add to that the millions of internally displaced people, as well as millions of refugees in neighbouring countries, and you have a disaster scenario waiting to unfold.
According to the Global Health Security Index, which rated the health security of 195 countries worldwide in October 2019, Syria is number 194 in ‘Early detection and reporting for epidemics of potential international concern’, ie second to last. As far as ‘Rapid response to and mitigation of the spread of an epidemic’, Syria is number 166 on the list, again on the lower end of the continuum.
As for Yemen and Libya, they are number 179 and 111 respectively on the ‘Early detection and reporting’ stage, and number 184 and 185 on the ‘Rapid response’ stage, again very dismal forecasts.
Yemen is mired in a civil war between Iranian-backed Houthis and the exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government. The country has seen thousands die and now faces a lack of infrastructure to combat the virus. Efforts to build a hospital in the port city of Aden was met with protests by residents who fear the virus will spread to the neighbourhood.
Saudi Arabia has closed its only remaining border crossing with Yemen, the Wadia border crossing, to passengers coming from the country as a precaution against the coronavirus, as it did with its land borders with Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain. Saudi authorities have said that the Wadia border crossing is open to exit from Saudi Arabia.
In the United Arab Emirates, one of the 14 new coronavirus cases (out of 59 total) is a Syrian national. There are fears that refugee camps are rife for transmission of the virus because of close quarters and the lack of necessary sanitation, not just in the UAE but in all host countries that have welcomed refugees.
As for internally displaced people within Syria, there is only the World Health Organization assisted by the Turkish government.
Unable to provide services from regime territory inside Syria, the World Health Organization provides cross-border assistance to rebel-held Idlib via Turkey, spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson told AFP.
Health personnel are being trained and "laboratories in both Idlib and Ankara are being prepared and stocked to safely test and diagnose the virus", he added.
In Libya, two governments are at war with each other: the UN-backed government in Tripoli is up against warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
According to the Libya Observer, the Libyan National Center for Disease Control said the coronavirus has started to pose a direct threat to the country, warning of its imminent outbreak in Libya.
There have not been any cases of the coronavirus reported in Libya yet, but given the as yet unstoppable spread of Covid-19 across the world, it is unlikely that the country will remain untouched for very long.
In Israel, there are 76 cases, with 72 of them active. Israel has decided to quarantine travellers arriving at the country for two weeks as a precaution against the coronavirus. And in Palestine, there are 29 total and active cases.
The Middle East Eye reports a heartwarming story of Palestinians flooding the residents of a quarantined hotel with food and gifts. In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency last week as Bethlehem went under lockdown.
Speaking to the Middle East Eye, 44-year-old Ghada al Azzeh, head of the women’s centre in Bethlehem city’s Aida refugee camp, voiced some concerns about if a serious outbreak were to occur. “It’s pretty clear that this is all happening at the last minute,” she said.
She added: “For example, it’s not clear which numbers we should call if we get sick, where we should go, how do we get tested.”