Iran, a regional Covid-19 epicentre, backs the Assad regime and sends religious pilgrims and militias to Syria where health systems stand ravaged by war. Arrival of the virus in war-torn countries such as Syria and Gaza raises fears of circulation.

A member of the Syrian Violet NGO disinfects tents at a camp for displaced people in Kafr Jalis village, north of Idlib city. March 21, 2020
A member of the Syrian Violet NGO disinfects tents at a camp for displaced people in Kafr Jalis village, north of Idlib city. March 21, 2020 (AFP)

War-ravaged Syria on Sunday confirmed its first case of the coronavirus after weeks of rejecting opposition allegations that the disease had already reached a country with a wrecked health system and thousands of Iranian-backed militias and Shia pilgrims.

The Russia-backed regime's health minister Nizar al Yaziji told state media "necessary measures" had been taken regarding the 20-year-old woman whom, he said, would be quarantined for 14 days and will undergo medical checks.

There have been unconfirmed reports in recent weeks of coronavirus cases in Syria, whose health system, housing and infrastructure have been ravaged by nine years of civil war, but regime officials have denied any outbreak or cover-up.

Despite not have announced any cases before, Damascus, the regime capital, has said it's taking strict measures to limit the spread of the pandemic in government-controlled areas, including closing down all restaurants and cafes and scaling back the work of government ministries.

The virus has been spreading in neighbouring countries, infecting more than 300,000 people worldwide and killed more than 13,000. More than 90,000 people have recovered.

UN officials and humanitarian workers fear a major outbreak in Syria could be particularly catastrophic.

Regime leader Bashar al Assad issued a prisoner amnesty on Sunday, according to state media, which said it was a move to relieve congestion that risked the spread of the virus.

In an unprecedented move, bakeries across the country would no longer open for citizens and bread would be delivered by distributors to homes to prevent mingling by customers during hours waiting in long queues, state media said.

Virus hotspot Iran still operating flights to Damascus

Medics say the country is also vulnerable with thousands of Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside Assad's forces, who maintain a strong presence in Syria's big cities and have their headquarters in the Damascus Shia suburb of Sayeda Zainab.

Thousands of Shia pilgrims from Iran also visit Damascus.

Iran, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic outside China, is Syria's main regional ally and operates military and civilian flights that bring the militia fighters into the country.

Iran's Mahan Air still has regular flights from Tehran to Damascus, according to Western diplomats tracking Syria, even though other Syrian flights have been suspended.

Iranian-backed militias also still enter Syria using the Al Bukamal border crossing with Iraq, where the virus is spreading, according to local residents and Western intelligence intelligence sources.

The regime army's general command announced on Saturday it had raised the level of preparedness in military hospitals and gave orders to minimise gatherings, including military sports activities or any that take place in closed areas.

"We have taken a number of steps ... to protect our sons in their residences in military units and formations and order the use of gloves and masks," an army statement said.

Military defectors say a number of senior officers had taken leave and in some units commanders have given orders to avoid mingling with Iranian-backed militias seen as higher risk of spreading the virus.

Medics in the opposition-held northwest also fear the coronavirus could spread quickly in crowded camps for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians who fled months of relentless Russian-backed bombing of opposition and rebel-held areas.

Nearly one million Syrians were displaced by the regime's December assault on Idlib. 

Iran's outbreak amid sanctions

In Iran, the government has reported more than 21,600 cases and 1,685 deaths.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, on Sunday refused US assistance to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus could have been created by Americans.

US sanctions have devastated Iran's economy. But officials there have also come under heavy criticism for not imposing stricter measures early on to curb the spread of the pandemic.

Neighbouring Iraq has extended a country-wide curfew until March 28. It has the highest virus death toll in the region after Iran, with 20 fatalities among 233 confirmed cases. 

The country is still recovering from the costly war against the Daesh.

Virus threatens poor countries ravaged by war

The arrival of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip, an impoverished enclave where the health care system has been gutted by years of conflict raised fears on Sunday that the pandemic may soon prey on some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

Authorities in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas group seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, confirmed its first two cases overnight, in returnees who had come from Pakistan.

An outbreak could wreak havoc on the Palestinian territory, which is home to over 2 million people, many living in cramped cities and refugee camps.

Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization's Gaza office, said the territory only has 62 ventilators, with all but 15 already in use. He estimates the territory needs 50 to 100 more to address an outbreak.

With its current capacity, he estimated Gaza's hospitals can handle the first 100 cases if they come in gradually. “If there is a spread to hundreds, this will cause a challenge to the health care system," he said.

On Friday, Hamas ordered the closure of wedding halls and weekly street markets, after earlier closing Gaza's schools.

There are similar concerns about a catastrophe if the virus turns up in Libya or Yemen, which are both divided by civil wars that have ruined their healthcare systems. 

Afghanistan reported its first death on Sunday, a man in his 40s. The war-ravaged country has reported 34 confirmed cases.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies