Syria confirmed its first coronavirus case yesterday, after a long period of denial that it had any such cases. Health Minister Nizar Al-Yaziji identified the patient as a 20-year-old woman who had recently returned from abroad. All “necessary measures” are being taken, including medical checks and quarantine for 14 days.
The official confirmation of this case comes after weeks of various reports – including some from pro-regime journalists – that there are huge numbers of infected people within Syria which the regime has been covering up. There was particular speculation about the constant and regular transfer of fighters and advisers from Iran, which is struggling with tens of thousands of coronavirus cases. The Iranians in Syria live in heavily populated areas in the capital Damascus. Iranian-backed Shia militias based in Iraq also cross into Syria regularly through the Bukamal border crossing, while Iran’s Mahan Air has been continuing its flights from Tehran to Damascus.
Despite the confusion about actual virus infections, the regime has started to impose strict measures to control the spread of the pandemic, including the closure of schools, parks, restaurants and other public facilities, as well as a ban on public transport.
President Bashar Al-Assad has also apparently issued a general amnesty to all prisoners, allowing those who committed crimes before yesterday to be released. Human rights lawyers, however, have said that those released will most likely be criminals rather than the numerous political prisoners locked up in Syria’s vast prison network. One Syrian lawyer told the UAE-based newspaper The National, “Do not expect much from a lawless regime… Assad will probably release only a sample of political prisoners this time, if any.”
Throughout the Middle East, increased measures are being taken by the authorities to tackle the pandemic, ranging from the shutting down of schools and universities, banning congregational prayers in mosques, and extended curfews and lockdowns such as Saudi Arabia’s implementation of a 21-day curfew yesterday in order for people to self-quarantine. International travel has also been banned to many parts of the world more vulnerable to the virus.
If the virus spreads within Syria, the common fear is that the refugees displaced as a result of the nine-year conflict could be infected and cause havoc in the already struggling health facilities in refugee camps in north-west Syria and Turkey.