THE GOVERNMENT HEADED by President Bashar al-Assad, currently controlling about 70 percent of the nation, has mobilized to coordinate a pandemic response and report cases on a daily basis: By Aug. 6, it confirmed 944 cases and 48 COVID-19 deaths. But in the Damascus region alone, health workers reported hundreds of excess deaths attributable to the coronavirus, suggesting thousands in the capital area—the country’s most stable region—already might be infected.
It’s an open secret the numbers are off, but less clear is whether the government is deliberately underreporting or simply lacks the ability to report effectively. Doctors for months have reported seeing dozens of cases per day, often recorded as pneumonia. “The official figures could be the tip of the iceberg because testing is so scarce,” warned World Vision President and CEO Andrew Morley.
The challenge to deliver test kits and other needed supplies into the country has been made harder as COVID-19 cases spike. The United States imposed new economic sanctions starting mid-June, further crippling banking and foreign transactions and coinciding with a plunge in the Syrian pound.
The central bank raised the official exchange rate from 704 to 1,256 Syrian pounds to the dollar, nearly doubling prices for most consumers. A “reference basket” of food—flour, beans, and oil for a month—has gone up 111 percent in the past year, according to the World Food Program. On the black market, where most currency flows, exchange rates are worse, plunging to 3,000 pounds on the dollar.
Also in June, the UN Security Council passed a compromise resolution limiting humanitarian access into Syria’s north to one border crossing from Turkey. The move came after Russia and China vetoed a resolution allowing two border crossings to remain. Closing the second crossing, warned the United States and its allies, deprives essential supplies to 1.5 million people—half of them children.
Aid groups are just as worried about food security as they are about COVID-19. As supplies go down, prices go up, and sanctions make it harder to move money into the country to buy products locally.
Combining those factors, the country is ripe for the virus to spread rapidly once it takes root in communities. Average Syrian family size is more than six people, and multiple families are living together or in crowded camps due to the war.
Migration across nearby borders is also prevalent. Many patients at the Izraa center work as drivers coming from Lebanon or Jordan with Syrian families who want to return. One driver from Jordan crossed into Syria carrying a family of five, arriving at the isolation center with typical symptoms—loss of a sense of smell, high fevers, coughing, and sore throats. The driver and the whole family tested positive, said Hassan, but eventually all recovered.
Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, the mother superior at the Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of St. James the Mutilated, is the head of MSJM, which has successfully partnered with several U.S. and international aid groups to deliver food and medical care, including to areas of fighting. Criticized in the past for supporting the Assad regime, Mother Agnes has parted ways with Damascus over its handling of coronavirus numbers.
“They would like to appear as updated as possible and taking all precautions, but I think the numbers are less than what they are in reality,” she said. “We coped with cases in our clinics for weeks and had no PCR [tests] in Syria. We are treating ‘pneumonia’ and people are dying before we can acknowledge it is COVID-19, when in reality that’s what it is.”