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Coronavirus in War Zones: Syria and Yemen
A member of the Syrian White Helmets civil defense group instructs schoolchildren about the coronavirus during an awareness campaign in the town of Binnish in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, Dec. 6, 2020. (Muhammad Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

Coronavirus in War Zones: Syria and Yemen

Politicization, poor leadership response, lack of transparency and a plethora of competing concerns characterize both countries’ struggles

Living in a war zone is not easy. Living in a war zone with the coronavirus pandemic is even more difficult, especially in Syria and Yemen.

This was one of the many topics discussed at the TRT World Forum 2020, held last week online.

No one has exact data on the impact of the novel coronavirus in either Syria or Yemen, due to purposeful government obfuscation. For statistics on numbers of cases and deaths, Syrian and Yemeni researchers are reliant on medical experts on the ground to give them a snapshot of what is going on.

Based on these sources, it appears that cases in Syria are surging while in Yemen, they are diminishing.

In addition to the lack of precise data due to purposeful official vagueness, Syria and Yemen share commonalities in terms of country response and civilian perception.

Authorities in both countries have politicized COVID-19 to fit their own political agendas and have been incompetent in their response to the disease. In addition, both countries’ medical facilities and health care professionals are targets for all sides and their infrastructure is falling apart. Lastly, for many civilians, problems such as hunger, violence and other deadly diseases have eclipsed COVID-19 in terms of concern.

In Yemen, official silence by some combined with lack of resources and ineptness makes determining the exact number of coronavirus cases impossible.

There will be more people dying of malnourishment and famine because of the economic impact of COVID than those who die directly of COVID

“Nobody knows how many people got sick in the Houthi [rebel controlled] areas. In the government areas, they announced figures that are completely unrealistic numbers, like in the 2,000 to 3,000 range,” Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies told The Media Line.

“My estimate of the mortality is 50,000 to 80,000 deaths for the entire country. There are no statistics; the figure is based on contacts with doctors and frontline workers,” he added.

He says that in Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, over 100 medical professionals have died as a result of the coronavirus.

However, Al-Iryani says that even though the exact number of cases is unknown, there are far fewer cases now than there were earlier.

“COVID wards in Sanaa and Aden are empty now. People have stopped talking about COVID. They don’t consider it to be an issue,” he said.

The senior researcher asserts that the financial repercussions from the coronavirus will have a much larger effect on people’s lives.

“Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who work in Saudi Arabia lost their jobs. There will be more people dying of malnourishment and famine because of the economic impact of COVID than those who die directly of COVID,” Al-Iryani said.

Yemen defied every measure against COVID-19: There was no quarantine, attempts to lock down failed. … Many Yemenis pretty much went about their business as if COVID did not exist

Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute who attended the conference, agreed, explaining that remittances are the primary source of income in Yemen.

“The most devastating impact of COVID-19 is economic. Remittances declined by 80% in the first four months of 2020 as many Yemenis living abroad lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19,” she said.

Al-Dawsari said that in 2019, formal sources reported that $3.8 billion in remittances were sent back to Yemen, but informal sources put the figure at closer to $10 billion.

The fact that cases appear to be going down seems almost miraculous given how little COVID precautions are being observed in Yemen.

“Yemen defied every measure against COVID-19: There was no quarantine, attempts to lock down failed. … Many Yemenis pretty much went about their business as if COVID did not exist,” Al-Dawsari said.

The Assad regime does not invest money in fighting COVID-19 because he simply doesn’t care about the lives of Syrian citizens at all

Meanwhile in Syria, the true extent of the coronavirus is unknown, according to Fadel Abdul Ghany, executive director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), because President Bashar Assad has politicized the virus.

“While COVID-19 spread everywhere, the regime didn’t announce the number of cases and they keep denying COVID even exists in Syria. They have threatened anyone who announces deaths resulting from COVID,” he told The Media Line.

According to SNHR, in the first five months of this year, nine medical personnel were killed and 21 were either detained without cause or subject to enforced disappearances. Today, at least 3,353 medical personnel are in prison or have been taken against their will, their whereabouts unknown.

Ghany says Assad has done very little to stop the spread of COVID in Syria.

“The Assad regime does not invest money in fighting COVID-19 because he simply doesn’t care about the lives of Syrian citizens at all,” he said.

Unlike in Yemen, Dr. Nasser al-Hariri, president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, said that there appeared to have been a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with 60,000 reported cases and 166 confirmed deaths. In the displaced persons camps, there have been nine deaths out of 935 cases. At least 1,000 cases are reported in embattled northwest Syria, home of Idlib province, with 15- to 45-year-olds comprising the bulk of the cases.

Ghany’s biggest human rights concern involving COVID-19 are detainees. There are approximately 147,000 Syrians in custody, 129,000 of whom are in Assad’s prisons.

“They are living in a crowded, unsanitary area without medicine; they are subject to tremendous methods of torture [SNHR has documented at least 72 different forms],” he said. “Assad does not release detainees [on account of COVID] like even the Iranian regime does. On the contrary, Assad is still arresting Syrian citizens.”

While Syria and Yemen seem to be dealing with different coronavirus levels, the warring sides in both countries are using coronavirus for their own political endgames.

“The Houthis … considered this … information warfare from the beginning. They tried as much as possible to deny access and deny existence of the outbreak because they felt from the beginning that there was going to be over-access of international humanitarian agencies into areas they control,” Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni human rights activist and researcher at the UK-based Reprieve Organization, said at the conference. “In Aden, the Southern Transitional Council dealt with COVID situation by … using it to legitimize its authority and [tried] to be the distributor of humanitarian aid.”

Ibrahim Olabi, a barrister for Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers in the UK, says that Assad has been using COVID-19 to try to pressure other countries to lift sanctions against his regime.

“What we’ve seen is the politicization of sanctions by the regime, which linked its COVID response ability to the fact that it is subject to sanctions … [even though] both European and US sanctions include humanitarian exemptions for things like ventilators,” he said at the conference.

Syria and Yemen also have shown lackluster leadership and been less than forthcoming in confronting the disease.

“Syrian and Yemeni authorities lacked a robust and timely response to the spread of the virus, putting the lives of thousands at risk,” Diana Semaan, Syria and Yemen researcher at Amnesty International, told The Media Line. “The biggest concerns include the protection of health workers treating COVID-19 patients and lack of transparent and consistent information about the countries’ COVID-19 outbreak.”

“In Yemen, Houthis continue to fail in providing any data on the scale of the outbreak and the distribution of personal protective equipment to health workers,” she added.

Besides not following safety guidelines, another shared trait between the countries is that for many, coronavirus is low-priority among their concerns.

The Sanaa Center’s Al-Iryani says that Yemenis are much more concerned about the conflict, hunger, and not getting paid for their work. He also says that there are other diseases, such as cholera and dengue fever, that are “competing” with COVID-19 for people’s concern, explaining that in 2019, at least 3,000 people died of dengue fever. In the northern part of the country, he says, the death toll from last year was at least three to four times higher than in the south.

Ömer Özkizilcik, a researcher at the SETA Foundation, a Turkish think tank, said at the conference:

“At the moment, for the regular Syrian civilian who lives in the internal displaced person camps … doesn’t care much about the COVID pandemic. For him, this just a minor problem.”

However, Ghany disagrees.

“The impact of COVID-19 on civilians in Syria is much higher than in any [other] country all around the world,” he told The Media Line.

Yet another similarity between Syria and Yemen is that their health care systems are in shambles.

In Yemen specifically, only half of all hospitals and medical centers are somewhat operational, with those that can keep their doors open lacking critical supplies and medicine.

The health care system in Yemen and Syria has been significantly destroyed due to airstrikes and ground attacks by parties to the conflict

In both countries, the medical facilities have been casualties of the war.

“The health care system in Yemen and Syria has been significantly destroyed due to airstrikes and ground attacks by parties to the conflict,” Amnesty’s Semaan said. “The health system was already at a breaking point before the pandemic so now access to health care is even more restricted due to increased pressure on the health workers and medical facilities.”

Semaan says that global leaders, as well Yemeni and Syrian officials, play a crucial role in curbing the impact of coronavirus on civilians.

“We call on the international community to adequately support humanitarian organizations in order for them to support the health care system as well as health workers,” she said. “In addition, we call on the Syrian and Yemeni authorities to ramp up their public health response, in coordination with international health organizations based in the countries, to ensure that people have access to adequate health care and health workers have access to personal protective equipment.”

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