The spread of coronavirus to Syria brings the prospect of a deadly outbreak to a population devastated by nine years of war, with ravaged hospitals and tightly-packed camps likely to accelerate infection, doctors and aid workers said on Monday.
A U.N. source said three Syrians who tested positive at the weekend in Beirut, which is trying to contain a coronavirus outbreak, had recently arrived from Syria.
The government has denied covering up any cases, though close ties with its top regional ally Iran, the worst hit country in the Middle East, had increased the likelihood of the virus gaining a foothold.
Militias backed by Iran, which operates military and civilian flights to Syria, fight alongside Syrian army soldiers. Thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims from Iran and other countries also usually visit Damascus.
In parts of Syria outside state rule, Kurdish-led forces in the northeast and Turkey-backed opposition groups in the northwest have also closed crossings.
Displaced Syrians in the northwest live in overcrowded makeshift camps, leaving medics worried that an outbreak would be particularly lethal.
A Russian-backed Syrian government offensive there has uprooted nearly 1 million people in recent months and left its infrastructure in tatters.
Ahmad al-Dbis of the U.S.-based medical charity UOSSM, which operates in opposition territory, said fighting in the past year had destroyed much of the region’s medical facilities and left a stock of only 175 ventilators.
“Countries like Italy, France, Spain and others couldn’t escape from the coronavirus crisis so what will it be like for northwest Syria?” said Dbis.
The arrival of test kits this week, though limited, will allow doctors to finally begin checking for the virus. A handful tests were shipped to Turkey so far but no cases have come back positive.
“There are many cases coming to facilities and hospitals with the symptoms but we don’t have the capacity to make the diagnosis,” said Bashir Taj Aldin, a doctor with the Syrian American Medical Society which operates in Idlib.