Syria Weekly: Activists claim the regime is embarking on a major coronavirus cover-up
With no reported cases of coronavirus in the country, Syria is once again an outlier to the world.
As panic about the pandemic grips the region and the number of cases climbed, the Syrian regime has displayed a characteristic apathy and duplicitous approach to the crisis.
Bashar Al-Assad still insists that there are "no cases" of the coronavirus in Syria and until a few days ago, allowed public life to go on as normal despite numerous claims of outbreaks in Latakia and other cities.
For weeks there have been unconfirmed cases of the coronavirus in Latakia, Damascus and other cities held by the regime, with one suspected carrier reportedly testing positive for the disease on Sunday.
A video shared on social media also appeared to dispute the regime's claims that Syria is corona-free. It showed a man collapsed on the floor allegedly showing signs of the virus. Activists claimed that the ground around him was disinfected when he was taken away.
Such claims cannot be independently verified given the secretive nature of the regime, but there are numerous reports by activists and journalists of coronavirus hotspots emerging in Syria.
Families in Suweida province have been instructed to bury the dead deeper than usual, according to journalist Kareem Shaheen, while director of Deirezzor24 monitoring site, Omar Abu Layla, also reported deaths in Latakia province.
"A source very close to me confirmed that dozens of Assad regime's elements were infected by coronavirus in Latakia in the national hospital, amid a terrifying cover up by offices," he wrote on Twitter, saying the number was in the dozens.
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After repeated delays, the regime appears to have finally taken steps to tackle a possible coronavirus outbreak with a semi-lockdown imposed on the capital.
The 100-bed Al-Zabadani Hospital in the Damascus suburbs - once an opposition stronghold - has been designated as the key isolation and treatment centre for the country, in the event of an outbreak.
"The crew of the hospital consists of 220 doctors and technicians who are trained enough to deal with such epidemic diseases," Director of Damascus Health Directorate Yasin Nanous said about Al-Zabadani Hospital, according to SANA.
With Italy and Spain, and their first-class medical systems, struggling to cope with coronavirus outbreaks then regime areas in Syria - with its collapsed healthcare system and crumbling public services – appear heading for disaster.
Al-Zabadani Hospital with its eight-bed ICU unit and four ventilators looks ill-equipped to cope if an epidemic breaks out among the at least 10 million people living in regime areas.
Meanwhile, Syrian officials seem more concerned with using the crisis as a chance to call for an end to European and American sanctions on the regime.
Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK's Crisis Campaigns Manager, said that there are reasons to be sceptical about the regime's claims that there is no outbreak in Syria.
"It's hard to believe there are no COVID-19 cases in Syria. The regime's ability to detect cases across the whole of the country, and manage them, is extremely limited given the shortage of staff and equipment," he wrote.
If it is unable to tackle the crisis the implications for the regime could be significant, particularly in areas retaken from the opposition such as Daraa, where the government's hold is already tenuous and it is beginning to lose control of security.
Over the weekend Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis ordered the closure of all "markets and suspend all commercial, service, cultural and social activities".
The Syrian Red Crescent - seen as close to the regime - has sent trucks onto the streets of Damascus for the mass sanitisation of the capital, while volunteers have been called up to spray down public spaces in towns and cities with disinfectant.
Syrian regime media appear split on how to cover the crisis. Some reports have depicted a "resilient" Damascus, with Syrians going about their day-to-day life in the face of the crisis as normal.
Other media workers have struck a cautious note, showing the public taking the threat seriously by wearing facemasks and avoiding crowds.
There are fears that the pandemic in Iran could be replicated in Syria, with thousands of militia fighters, Revolutionary Guards soldiers, and pilgrims regularly moving between the two countries.
There have been numerous reports of Iranian soldiers and Tehran-led militia fighters in Syria falling ill with the virus and infecting Syrian regime officers and officials.
|Sometimes people with a disease in Branch 215 are kept in isolation, in a closed room, without food or water until they die
- Omar Alshogre
The committee managing the Sayyida Zainab Shrine in the Damascus suburbs - an important pilgrimage site for Shia Muslims, particularly from Iraq and Iranians - was closed on Monday due to the threat of coronavirus spreading until 2 April, "provided that the necessary maintenance and sterilisation of the entire shrine is carried out during this period".
Syrians returning from Iran have been herded into quarantine centres, which provide a glimpse into what coronavirus patients might have to endure if taken sick.
It also shows the complete chaos inside the Syrian public health system, battered by regime divestment and the flight of thousands of doctors and nurses out of Syria.
The quarantine system - particularly for students and pilgrims returning from Iran - could not contrast more greatly with that of neighbouring countries such as Jordan, where Jordanians have been put up and monitored in five-star hotels.
One centre visited by pro-regime activists showed a bare-bones facility, devoid of beds and furniture. Returnees appear to be crammed into rooms and lacking even back sanitation, making an outbreak of the disease highly likely.
A reporter showed the bathroom of the centre with its single shower and handful of toilets, that lack water and soap.
Quarantined patients said they had been given no instructions on hygiene, cleaning products or face masks.
In Syrian regime jails, cells are so crammed that prisoners take it in turns to sit or lie down on the floor, while dead bodies can be left for hours or days without being removed.
Detainees lack access to even basic healthcare, water or sanitation. Mostly starved, many diseased, the regime's notorious prisons will make for an ideal breeding ground for coronavirus if an outbreak occurs.
Omar Alshogre spent three years in a regime jail where he - like other detainees - was routinely tortured and exposed to sub-human living conditions.
In jail, Alshogre contracted tuberculous and combined with starvation rations, saw his weight drop to 35kg until he was eventually smuggled out by bribed guards.
Alshogre said that although he has not heard of any cases of coronavirus in Syrian prisons, they are a hotspot for other diseases.
"Detainees' immune systems are already broken due to torture, starvation and a variety of sicknesses caused by the conditions in their cells," he told The New Arab.
"TB is one of the most common diseases in these jails and it spreads very quickly since the prisoners are packed-in lack sardines."
Alshogre was held at the military intelligence-run Branch 215 detention centre in Damascus - dubbed the human slaughterhouse - for three years after taking part in a peaceful protest when he was 17.
Its harrowing conditions were documented by military photographer defector, Caeser, with disease, torture and starvation killing dozens of prisoners each day.
Many others are routinely hanged and catching coronavirus here could be tantamount to a death sentence, Alshogre said.
"Sometimes people with a disease in Branch 215 are kept in isolation, in a closed room, without food or water until they die," he said.
"The regime won't have any problem with the disease spreading in the prison. It will complete the genocide they have already started."
Assad issued another amnesty on Sunday - perhaps anticipating such an outbreak - pardoning petty criminals, but not those detained for "political crimes" (such as taking part in pro-democracy protests) or deserting the army.
It means that while hundreds of petty criminals will go free this week, many more who were arrested for taking part in peaceful protests will stay behind to face an impossible fight against the virus.
Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin