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Syria: Death by coronavirus - the latest fate awaiting Syrians

By Kristyan Benedict - @KreaseChan

Coronavirus as reported by the Syrian state

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, urgent action needs to be taken to save the lives of untold numbers of at-risk Syrians. Not least those still held in wretched conditions in detention centres run by Bashar al-Assad’s merciless regime.

Officially, Damascus is still saying “no coronavirus infections are registered in Syria”*. But this comes from a regime notorious for its untruths. If nothing else, nine years of crisis and repression in Syria have taught us that the authorities - along with Russia and other allied forces - have routinely misinformed the world, including the United Nations, of the humanitarian situation in the country.

We have to be incredibly sceptical about any claims regarding Syria being free of coronavirus cases.

The regime's ability to detect cases across the whole of the country, and manage them, is extremely limited given the serious shortage of trained staff and equipment. 

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says up to 70% of the health workforce has left the country and only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary healthcare centres across Syria were fully functional at the end of last year. Catastrophic at any time - even worse now.

After years of conflict - which has included the ruthless targeting of hospitals and clinics by Syrian government and Russian forces - the country is now extremely vulnerable to a lethal outbreak of coronavirus.

We have to plan for the worst.

Vulnerable Syians in prison must be protected from Coronavirus

To put this into human terms, if Syria is thought of as one individual then that person would fall into the most vulnerable category in relation to coronavirus susceptibility. The country, so to speak, is “aged” by conflict and has a host of underlying serious health conditions. If coronavirus were to emerge in the crowded, unsanitary camps of north-west Syria it would be calamitous. Worse still, if it spreads into the prison system.

Assad’s prisons are already notorious for their inhumanity - with chronic overcrowding in filthy conditions and a lack of food or medical treatment. In Saydnaya prison, former detainees told Amnesty researchers of 'subhuman conditions' where there could be more than 50 people in a cell as small as three metres square.

Detainees are already weakened by torture and other abuse, by neglect and fears for their future. An outbreak of coronavirus would be a complete disaster. There is major concern that prisoners in Syria are effectively going to be left to contract COVID-19 and die.

Act now to force Assad's regime to take action

The situation is urgent. There are numerous human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, doctors and aid workers languishing in Syrian regime detention.The UN needs to demand that anyone at risk of coronavirus in Syrian jails should be brought out of detention immediately, with all those detained solely for peacefully expressing their views freed unconditionally.  

The regime must be forced to quickly move out of propaganda mode where it prioritises the image of Assad as infallible, and instead, for once, prioritise the health of all Syrians - anything else is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous.

This can't be stressed enough - now is not the time for the Syrian government to display its usual lack of transparency, callousness and incompetence. They made a catastrophic mistake nine years ago when they ordered their forces to open fire on peaceful protesters - they must not make another one with their handling of the coronavirus, and take the action need to limit cases and save as many Syrian lives as possible from this COVID-19 pandemic.

Syrians in their millions have already had their lives devastated by years of barrel bombing, chemical weapons attacks, imprisonment, torture and killing.

We must not allow death by coronavirus to be the fate of those languishing in Syria’s squalid camps or Assad’s fetid jails.

*UPDATE - On 22 March 2020, Syria's Health Minister announced the first case of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country


At Amnesty, we’re campaigning for the release of the thousands of Syrians detained just for expressing their beliefs. But we need your support to make that happen. Please consider joining Amnesty as a member today. Thank you.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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