Between a rock and a hard place

Albert Aji & Bassem Mroue

DAMASCUS (AP) – Syrians rushed to stock up on food and fuel yesterday amid fears that authorities would resort to even stricter measures after reporting the first coronavirus infection in the country, where the healthcare system has been decimated by nearly a decade of civil war.

The arrival of the global pandemic in Syria as well as the Gaza Strip has raised concerns it could run rampant in some of the most vulnerable areas in the Middle East. War-torn Libya and Yemen, which have yet to report any cases, are also a source of concern.

The worst outbreak in the Middle East is unfolding in Iran, where state TV reported another 127 deaths yesterday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,812 amid more than 23,000 confirmed cases.

Iran has faced widespread criticism for not imposing stricter quarantine measures early on. It is also suffering under severe United States (US) sanctions.

Lines formed outside grocery stores, banks and petrol stations across the Syrian capital, Damascus, as people braced for wider closures.

The government has already closed restaurants, cafes and other businesses, and has halted public transportation.

The city’s famed Hamidiyeh souk, a network of covered markets running through the Old City, was deserted after the government ordered all shops closed on Sunday.

Authorities said border crossings with Lebanon and Jordan would close at midday. Damascus International Airport was closed to commercial traffic after a final flight arrived from Moscow.

State-run newspapers issued their last print edition and will only be available online.

Countries across the Middle East have ramped up restrictions on daily life in an effort to contain the global pandemic.

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, disinfects the interior of a mosque, as part of preventive measures taken against infections by the novel coronavirus, in the Syrian town of Dana on March 22. PHOTOS: AFP
A volunteer takes the temperature of a displaced girl next to a poster outlining seven steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at a camp for the internally displaced near Dayr Ballut, Syria
A view of closed-down shops at the historic Hanidiyah market in Damascus, Syria on March 22

Many have sealed their borders and cancelled flights.

The United Arab Emirates, home to the world’s busiest international airport, said it was suspending all passenger and transit flights for two weeks.

Dubai’s airport is a vital hub connecting Western nations with Asian countries and Australia, and suspending transit flights there affects travellers around the world.

Most people only experience mild symptoms from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus and recover within weeks.

But it is highly contagious and causes severe illness in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with weakened im-mune systems.

People can carry and spread the virus without showing any symptoms.

More than 340,000 people have been infected worldwide, and nearly 15,000 have died.

Nearly 100,000 people have recovered.

Syria has close ties to Iran, which is a key ally of the government in the civil war, and Shiite pilgrims frequently travel between the two countries.

Syria’s Health Ministry reported the first case of coronavirus in areas controlled by the government late on Sunday – a 20-year-old woman it said had arrived from another country, without elaborating.

Syria’s healthcare system has been ravaged by nearly a decade of war that has displaced millions of people and spawned rampant poverty.

Hospitals and clinics across the country have been destroyed or damaged. The government is also under heavy international sanctions linked to its conduct during the war.

An open-ended curfew came into effect yesterday in parts of northern and eastern Syria, which are controlled by a Kurdish-led civilian administration.

It was not immediately clear how that would affect hundreds of US troops stationed in the region.

Gaza, where two people tested positive after returning from Pakistan, has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

The coastal territory is home to more than two million people but it only has around 60 respirators, and all but 15 are already in use, according to Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office.

Afghanistan reported its first death on Sunday, a man in his 40s. The war-torn country has reported 34 confirmed cases.

In Pakistan, which has reported more than 800 infections and four deaths, authorities have asked people to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The government has said it hopes it won’t have to order a mandatory lockdown.

Many people seem to be ignoring the advice, and instead going about daily life wearing face masks that provide little – if any – protection. Others have resorted to panic buying, fearing a curfew could soon be imposed.

Nearly all the cases in Pakistan have been linked to travel to Iran.

Authorities have quarantined more than 2,500 people who have returned from Iran, mainly pilgrims, and are testing them for the coronavirus.

In Egypt, state-run television reported that Major General Safea Abdel-Halim Dawood, who took part in efforts to disinfect public places in recent days, had died from the virus.

The death of another senior officer who had taken part in those efforts was reported on Sunday.

Egypt has reported around 330 cases and 16 deaths.