Violet Organization: The Idlib NGO helping Syria's embattled province fight Covid-19
The coronavirus pandemic hangs over war-ravaged northwest Syria like the sword of Damocles.
The novel coronavirus reached the war-torn country late last month. At the time of this story's publication, Syria has reported 42 cases and 3 deaths. But activists fear the numbers may be higher than President Bashar Al-Assad's administration is willing to acknowledge.
Syria's northwest - the country's last opposition-held territory - has been pummelled by Assad forces' ruthless military campaign. Local and international anxieties have mounted over whether the virus will reach the battered region, which so far has not reported any Covid-19 cases.
An outbreak would be particularly devastating in the Idlib province, which houses medical facilities destroyed by airstrikes and over a million refugees living in overcrowded camps.
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frontline initiatives leading the charge against Covid-19
Despite the pandemic, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have continued their efforts in northwest Syria. Some have launched preemptive Covid-19 response initiatives. Violet Organization is one of them.
Violet Organization started out in 2012, early into Syria's ongoing nine-year war. The initiative began in the Idlib home of founder Fuad Sayyed Issa, then 16-years-old, and consisted of only five members: Issa, his father and three friends. The crew delivered food packages to war-affected Idlib residents.
Today, Issa said, the crowdfunded organisation boasts around 2,000 employees and 1,000 volunteers based in northwest Syria, counting United Nations agencies and Save The Children among its partners.
Violet's operations span across sectors such as food security, shelter, education and health. With recent conflict escalations in Idlib, Violet has been dispatching emergency response teams to administer first aid and transport injured people to health facilities operated by the organisation's medical staff.
Issa, 24, told The New Arab Violet workers were not immune to the ongoing war. In the city of Maarat Al-Numan, regime shelling targeted a Violet facility and displaced over 100 first aid volunteers. Over 1,000 teachers working in schools funded by Violet also fled the city.
"All those people, they need shelter, food, cash grants," Issa told The New Arab. "We have a lot of health facilities that we closed and started to evacuate to other areas."
Many Violet workers are currently living in refugee camps, joining the very people they were tasked with helping.
In recent years, Issa said, three Violet workers were killed by Assad forces' aerial bombing.
Preparing for the worst
The organisation is deeply concerned about a potential catastrophe if Covid-19 spreads to northwest Syria.
Social distancing is impossible for displaced Syrians in the region, who found themselves living in crowded environments. Aside from makeshift camps that are full to the brim, Issa said thousands are living in packed rooms with host families.
Others sleep in the halls of public establishments turned into "reception centres" for refugees, from local mosques to a stadium in Idlib.
Internally displaced Syrians living in such conditions also share the same few hygiene facilities, another issue that risks enabling an epidemic.
Issa said encouraging people to stay home is a difficult task due to wartime livelihood struggles. Syrians in the northwest region who still work to provide for their families - such as construction workers rehabilitating destroyed buildings - may not have the option to stay indoors.
"If we tell them 'You must stay home and you must stop working', they might die of hunger," Issa told The New Arab.
Northwest Syria's fragile health sector would be unable to handle a Covid-19 outbreak. According to a report by Violet, there are no isolation centres in the region, as well as a sore lack of ventilators.
In an effort to protect their communities, Violet assembled a Covid-19 task force last month. Over 200 volunteers were trained to prepare for a potential outbreak with rapid response measures that include emergency evacuations through the organisation's ambulance system.
Volunteers have repeatedly sterilised hospitals, public health centres and areas housing displaced Syrians, such as camps.
Issa said the organisation has distributed hygiene kits that include masks and hand sanitisers to over 5,000 individuals. Following World Health Organisation guidelines, Violet has also conducted Covid-19 awareness campaigns encouraging displaced Syrians to protect themselves from the virus by maintaining their personal hygiene.
Violet has also provided aid to northwest Syria's medical establishments, delivering more than 500 packs of full protective gear to health workers and setting up over 160 triage tents near hospitals and clinics across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. A team of volunteers was tasked with building face shields for medical staff.
"It's a very small thing we can do, but the need is so huge," said Issa. "But we are trying to do our best."
Danya Hajjaji is a journalist at The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @danyahaj