The official tally of the number of active COVID-19 cases in Syria was only 70 cases the morning of Sunday, May 24. Only four deaths had been reported. But none of the experts believe that these numbers are accurate. The inaccuracy is due to a number of factors. The Syrian government may be under-reporting their numbers of cases for political reasons. But the main reason for these low numbers is likely because testing in Syria is very difficult to obtain, even for people with suspected infections.

In North and East Syria, only four COVID-19 testing machines exist to serve four million people. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) Health Commission confirmed that only 70 tests had been conducted by Tuesday, May 12. Due to nearly a decade of war and instability, all medical facilities and clinics in the region are in short supply and understaffed. Estimates show that existing health infrastructure can only accommodate a few hundred acute cases of COVID-19 over the entire region. Aid and support from the international community is needed, but so far very little help has arrived for the people of North and East Syria.

The first confirmed case and death from COVID-19 in North and East Syria occurred in Hasakeh, where a 53-year-old man was hospitalized on March 22, then given a test on March 27. This test was sent to the Syrian government in Damascus, which at the time conducted the only testing available in the country. The WHO waited more than two weeks to notify the AANES of the positive test result. In the meantime, the patient died. The AANES Health Commission has deeply criticized the WHO for delaying notification of the result. The delay gave the virus an additional two weeks to spread through the region undeterred.

Two additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North and East Syria were announced on April 29 in Hasakeh, North and East Syria. Testing was conducted by a private testing facility, These two cases are a married couple, one of whom received care at the general hospital in Qamishlo, while the other remained in quarantine at home in Hasakeh. Both have since recovered. Experts believe that even a single case of the virus in a neighborhood represents that community spread is already underway.

There is simply too little testing or information to know how widespread COVID-19 is in North and East Syria. Official numbers on COVID-19 cases and deaths are falling short in the most stable, wealthiest countries, but in Syria as a whole, there is no way at all to know how many people are infected.

Precautionary Measures

The AANES was early to implement measures to protect the public, despite the early lack of testing capacity. Measures such as a stay-at-home order and travel restrictions were announced in mid-March. AANES has now extended the stay-at-home orders until Sunday, May 24, the end of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, and may extend these orders again if necessary, as they may be the only thing protecting the public.

The measures were amended to allow farm workers to conduct their harvesting and farm work, as the growing and harvesting seasons are underway. Workers may travel outside their homes for work or essential travel from 6 AM to 7 PM each day. Places of business are also permitted to operate during this timeframe, but must follow social distancing guidelines.

COVID Risk at ISIS Detention Center

The US military has issued statements expressing fears that the pandemic may lead to the resurgence of ISIS. Captured ISIS fighters are currently being held in the Al-Howl detention center, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In tight quarters and with insufficient sanitary resources or virus mitigation practices, these fighters have been trying to use the pandemic to stage an escape. So far the security personnel have prevented several attempts. Releasing these prisoners, as many Western countries have done, would constitute grave violations of international law, in addition to putting the world at very real risk for an ISIS resurgence.
“Any conditions that are adverse, be it the pandemic or access to essential services, are always going to be things that Daesh could use for recruitment to try to bring people into their ideology,” said a US military officer, speaking to Politico.