COVID-19 in Syria: Three stories

12 Nov 2020

More than two million people, displaced from their homes due to violence, are now living in overcrowded camps in Idlib governorate. For those living in these camps, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is high and self-isolation is difficult, if not impossible. Regular handwashing is also a challenge, as many people rely on water collected from shared tanks.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are providing healthcare in a number of camps for displaced people across northwest Syria. With the number of COVID-19 patients steadily increasing, local authorities have imposed a limited lockdown to help slow down transmission of the virus. Three people living in the camps shared their stories and concerns with us as the pandemic continues to complicate their lives.

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A man collects a hygiene kit for his family at an MSF distribution point in a camp in Idlib governorate, Syria. In order to prevent overcrowding during the distribution, MSF teams are maintaining social distancing and requesting only one person per family line up at the site. © MSF

“This virus is no joke”

“With coronavirus, I know leaving home is risky, but I don’t have any choice,” says Kamal Adwan, aged 25, who lives in a camp for displaced people in northwest Syria. “As scary as the virus is, I can’t leave my family without food.” 

For Kamal, sole breadwinner for a family of 15, the economic repercussions of the pandemic are more life-threatening than the pandemic itself. Before COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions, Kamal used to find work on construction sites. Today he lives with his parents and 12 other family members in two adjacent tents in Abu Dali camp. They fled their hometown in rural Hama province in February 2019 after it came under heavy shelling.

“My main concern is to get as far away as possible from anyone with suspected COVID-19,” says Kamal. “The camp is overcrowded and hiding from the virus has been challenging.

“When we first heard of coronavirus, we thought it was a rumour, or nothing more than seasonal flu. Now I know that this virus is no joke and it is directly affecting me.”

“I have never bought a mask—I can barely buy bread”

Umm Firas, aged 39, is also the breadwinner for her family. More than a year ago, her husband was severely injured in an airstrike on their house, leaving him half paralysed and unable to work or provide for their nine children. 

Before the pandemic, Umm Firas renovated people’s tents within the camp and mended their mattresses and sheets. Now she has to balance the family’s need for an income against the risks of going out to work. 

“I stopped going out of my tent to protect myself and my family,” she says. “But sometimes I am obliged to go and look for work. I am always scared I’ll catch the virus and spread it to my children, but what else can I do?”

Of Umm Firas’ nine children, only three daughters used to go to school. Schools across northwest Syria had to take measures to reduce the risks of transmission: students were asked to wear face masks, which can be bought from local pharmacies for one Turkish lira, but this is out of the reach of many parents, including Umm Firas.

“The teacher used to ask my daughters to put masks on, but what do you expect them to say?” says Umm Firas. “I have never bought a mask—I can barely buy bread. When I have the choice, I always go for bread.”

Unable to afford face masks, some parents have stopped sending their children to school. In some schools, teachers are trying to find alternative solutions, such as allowing students to use old pieces of cloth to cover their faces. Where there are no alternatives, children simply can’t attend.

I have never bought a mask—I can barely buy bread. When I have the choice, I always go for bread.

Umm Firas
Displaced person

“It’s impossible not to put yourself at risk”

Forty-year-old Umm Ahmed is also finding it difficult to cope. Originally from Qalaat Al-Madiq, in Hama province, Umm Ahmed fled her home with her husband and seven children in 2012 and found refuge in Qah, in Idlib province, for two years. In 2014, they moved from Qah to Deir Hassan, where they have been living ever since. The nine of them live in a one-room tent, including her husband, who is bedridden and cannot work.  

Umm Ahmed was the family’s only breadwinner, working as a hygiene assistant in one of the hospitals in Ad-Dana district, northwest Syria, but was forced to stop when she suffered kidney failures a few months ago. 

The camp where Umm Ahmed lives hosts around 50 families, all of whom share a single water tank and three toilet blocks. 

“It’s impossible to wash your hands regularly in the camp without putting yourself at risk,” she says.

As the economic situation for Umm Ahmed’s family worsens, she has found it increasingly difficult to afford soap and detergents to protect herself and her family from COVID-19. Recently she received an MSF hygiene kit containing soap, detergent, and buckets for cleaning.

“There are still things we can do to avoid catching the virus,” says Umm Ahmed. “I’ve stopped going out as much as I can, and I avoid being around other people. It keeps me and my family safe. 

“But I can’t ban my children from playing outside with the other kids. They’re young, they need to play, and our tent is very small. I understand it’s a risk, but how can I stop them?”  

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An aerial view of a camp in Idlib governorate, northwest Syria, where MSF teams have been distributing hygiene kits for internally displaced families since April. © MSF

For those living in Syria’s displacement camps, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made a complex situation worse. After years of conflict, the healthcare system in northwest Syria is facing immense challenges in coping with the outbreak. There are just nine dedicated COVID-19 hospitals for a population of around four million, and only 36 isolation and treatment centres providing basic care for patients with mild symptoms.

“Idlib province has become like a huge prison: people can’t move south or north, and they’re stuck here in the middle,” says Hassan, MSF logistics manager. 

“They think that the virus will reach them and their families at some point. They only hope it won’t get to them all at once. The healthcare system simply couldn’t manage to treat a lot of COVID-19 patients at once.”