Four million residents in North and East Syria still have almost no capacity to test for or treat Coronavirus, despite pleas and urgent calls for help to the WHO, the UN, and other international bodies. There is little doubt that COVID-19 is spreading undetected through the region, and leading to illness and death.
Two testing machines and complementary laboratory equipment were graciously supplied by the neighboring Kurdistan Regional Government. A few assorted supplies have been offered to the region from the US Central Command and other organizations. Heyva Sor and the AANES Health Commission are doing heroic work with scant supplies or staff. Despite the availability of testing equipment, hospitals and health centers have capacity for only about 460 active cases of COVID-19, researchers estimate.
The two testing machines that were provided by KRG are necessary equipment for taking samples from the population and sending them to a laboratory. According to a video published by North Press Agency, the machines are two Qiagen Rotor-Gene Q polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing machines, which can take genetic information from samples and detect Coronavirus in the sample. Also donated were computers with the corresponding software, medical-grade freezer, temperature-controlled work station, safe storage chest, and other necessary supplies and equipment. About 25 medical personnel are being trained on the use of the equipment. General Mazloum Kobani, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, thanked President Nechirvan Barzani of the KRG for the gracious donation.
While these testing machines are necessary for a response, there are still only two of them for four million people. One laboratory working at maximum capacity can deliver 36 test results within two to three hours, according to the Rojava Network. It is woefully insufficient.
Despite a stay-at-home order from the administration, severe travel restrictions, city center cleanings, and other precautions, the people of North and East Syria are bracing for tragedy.
At the same time, Turkey is seizing this moment, while the rest of the world is distracted by the pandemic, to wage further genocide against the Kurdish-majority region. Turkey has not gone a single day without shelling, bombs, or violence in the region, and they continue to threaten to invade further into the region.
Short Supplies, Few Doctors
Over 1 million refugees are living in densely-populated camps in the region. Most are in tents without the capacity for “social distancing.” Only 13 quarantine centers have been prepared — with only 40-45 ventilators between them — to treat the coming onslaught of Coronavirus patients. A survey of all remaining hospitals reveals that there are only 35 beds in all ICU units in all of North and East Syria.
There were 1,200 test kits provided by the WHO to the Assad government. However, none of those kits are being made available for the people of North and East Syria.
“The World Health Organization did not provide any of these capabilities to the region,” said Ilham Ahmed, Executive President of the Syrian Democratic Council of the AANES. “This is a great injustice committed by international organizations against this region, as it limits support to the administration through the Syrian regime exclusively. Damascus however does not provide any assistance for the administration, and does not allow international organizations to provide it, despite that the areas of the administration are outside its control.”
The situation was made more critical by the Russia-backed closure of al-Yaroubiah border crossing with Iraq, which was used by the UN to deliver medical and humanitarian aid to North and East Syria. Now all aid is supposed to be routed through the Assad government in Damascus. But the Assad government is not even doing an adequate job of providing aid to its own territory, and it is not likely to deliver any aid at all to North and East Syria. The AANES is skeptical that Damascus is even testing the few samples that have been sent to their labs to process.
Recently, a $1.2 million shipment, including personal protective gear such as masks and gloves, were provided to the security personnel and the Syrian Democratic Forces by the US Central Command. The shipment also included military/security equipment. While the personal protective gear was a welcome boost, these supplies are still insufficient compared to the need.
In a separate effort, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $16.8 million in humanitarian aid to face the Coronavirus crisis — to be provided to the Assad government, not North and East Syria, despite the face that the SDF have been indispensable US allies in rooting out ISIS and global terrorism. Pompeo’s announcement contained no further detail than a dollar amount and a reminder of past aid provided by the US to Syria.
The controversial UN Special Envoy James Jeffrey made a statement about the $16.8 million in US aid, noting that, “In the northeast, the international community’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance is complicated by Russia’s cynical and widely condemned action in the UN Security Council in January to close the one UN-authorized humanitarian assistance crossing point into that area.” Jeffrey’s statement has no good news North and East Syria. It remains highly unlikely that any of the $16.8 million will be seen in North and East Syria.
North and East Syria has faced a worsening shortage of doctors and health workers over the nine years of war and instability. Currently, there are only two doctors in all of North and East Syria who have been trained on how to operate a ventilator. Many of the humanitarian organizations that have been providing health aid, food aid, and other support to North and East Syria are pulling staff from the region to avoid their staff contracting COVID-19.
Administration Takes Measures to Prevent Virus Spread
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) have taken an assortment of measures to slow the spread of the virus. They issued a stay-at-home order, requiring all residents to stay home unless conducting non-essential business. They also ordered all non-essential shops and businesses to close. The only businesses that remain open are pharmacies and those selling groceries, medical supplies, cooking fuel, and other essential goods.
In addition to rallying supplies and preparing centers for healthcare, the administration has undertaken an effort toward cleaning city centers. An army of personnel in protective gear are using water and disinfectant spray throughout main corridors in cities and commercial districts.
Turkish Aggression Exacerbates the Crisis
Military aggression by Turkish and Turkish-backed forces is making the situation much worse — despite the UN appeal for a universal ceasefire as the world combats the virus. Turkey has taken advantage of the distraction caused by the pandemic to threaten further war and occupation. The autonomous administration is attempting to wage war on the global pandemic while under the threat of more war with Turkey, and more Turkish bombs dropped on hospitals, villages, and children.
Turkey, the Assad government, the SDF, and all militias in Syria should call a ceasefire while the world responds to the pandemic, said Geir Pedersen, UN Special Envoy to Syria. SDF has expressed its willingness to halt any hostilities during the pandemic. Despite the UN’s call and SDF’s willingness to comply, Turkey’s shelling continues.
In a gross violation of human rights, Turkey has also shut off water to 600,000 people. These people have no way to wash their hands or maintain minimum hygiene standards without water. Turkey has cut off the output from the Allouk water station, a critical piece of infrastructure in North and East Syria which Turkey captured in their October 2019 invasion. The Turkish invasion was widely condemned across the world, but Turkey is still occupying the territory of Afrin, Sere Kaniye, and Gere Spi.
Administration Eases Economic Woes for Residents
The AANES has been working to ease the economic burden of the stay-at-home order. The administration has waived water, electrical, and sanitation services bills for two months. In addition, the administration and local councils in dozens of cities have been making home deliveries of food packages to families in need. They have also been delivering cooking fuel.
Prices of food and other essential goods rose sharply after the border closures were enacted, making necessary food purchases unaffordable for most in North and East Syria. The administration acted quickly to set food prices at a reasonable rate to avoid widespread hunger and suffering.
Aid and Support Needed
The people of North and East Syria face a grave crisis — unless international aid and support is provided to supply test kits and testing methods, personal protective equipment, and more. In addition, it is imperative that the international community call on Turkey to stop its hostilities and occupation of the region, especially during this global pandemic.