What is new? Most events and celebrations for the residents of northeastern Syria (NES) happen in March and April of each year. Some of them are happy events, a reminder of the sacrifices they made in defending their existence and identities, and others transcend geographical boundaries and reach the international. Newroz, Akitu, the Yazidi new year (Red Wednesday), and other occasions take place during the mentioned two months. In 2021 however, like the previous year 2020, these events were compounded by the presence of Covid 19. The Self-Administration of North and East Syria (SANES) and civil society dealt differently with the pandemic; Comparing the measures SANES took in both years, they seem contradictory. At the time when COVID-19 started spreading worldwide and there were around a thousand cases and the numbers did not exceed tens in NES, the SANES issued strict curfews and lockdown measures in order to reduce the spread of Coronavirus at early times. However, when global indicators were increasingly alarming and the number of cases and deaths increased to millions along with increased awareness of the pandemic’s effects, no measures were taken by SANES to limit the spread of the virus. The result was daily cases and deaths accompanied by a paralyzed medical sector and increased economic crisis. The aforementioned factors contributed to the rapid spread of Covid-19 within what is known as the third wave. On March 25 only, SANES announced 251 cases, with total number of cases at 15,176 including (530 deaths) in NES. The increased numbers could have been avoided if SANES had responded to the medical specialists’ call to impose measures that limit gatherings and reduce celebrations during March and April 2021. It seems that all sectors, including civil society and the population, were not anticipating this wave. Rather than blaming any party, we try to provide an analysis of the causes and public health problems that the three governorates suffer from. To this end, TEVN Organization hosted an event with some civil society workers in and a group of activists, around 40 participants at Clubhouse in order to give a complete picture of the situation. The event took place on April 15, 2021. The following summarizes the findings from the event. What is the situation during the third wave of COVID-19? H.M: Activist from Qamishli. Hindirin Muhemed stated that March 2020 marked the beginning of the spread of COVID-19 in the region. The Virus spread and the number of cases increased as a result of arrivals from the regime-held areas (Damascus and other governorates) through Qamishli International Airport and the Semalka border-crossing with the Kurdistan region of Iraq. As a result, SANES imposed a complete curfew for a month and a half, this was followed by a partial curfew because of the closure’s impact on residents' economic situation. The situation continued between complete and partial closure until March 2021, when the third wave of Covid-19 started with no actual procedures. Due to many celebrations in the region such as Newroz and Akito Day, the third wave became very serious. There are hundreds of cases of COVID-19 in addition to eight deaths per day on average. Civil organizations started to work from home except for relief and humanitarian interventions. Hindirin, through her activities and personal experience with Covid-19, provided a comprehensive description of the medical sector in Al-Hasakah Governorate. There is one hospital (Jiyan) specialized for Covid-19 patients in Qamishli. Jiyan hospital was opened on January 20, 2020. The hospital is well equipped however it needs a PCR device. There is also another hospital in Hasakah city. Further, Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) centers are prepared with hotlines for 24 hours. KRC provides services based on their limited capabilities in comparison to the needs. All its services are totally free. Hindirin also mentioned that the media is contributing to raising awareness and providing information related to the number of cases and deaths. The SANES Health committee provides services as well which is somehow acceptable. In addition, civil organizations are contributing to raising awareness, providing masks, sterilizers, and sometimes other humanitarian services.
Fares Zakhera: Program Manager at Balon organization_ Raqqa city Mr. Fares AL Zakhera updated on the situation in Raqqa city. He mentioned that cases are increasing on daily basis, the numbers are terrifying, the situation is difficult, and the health and medical situation in the city is bad. Further to that, the capacities of civil organizations are limited however there have been voluntary youth campaigns to educate people about precautions. He believes that curfew is not the best solution and will have economic effects on the population, taking into consideration the crisis of long queues at bread ovens every day that also played a big role in the spread of COVID-19. Talking about medical capacities, Fares mentioned that although there is a national hospital, the number of beds is not enough. Moreover, civil organizations assisted the hospital: a local organization provided 20 intensive care beds, 35 recovery beds and 70 isolation beds for moderate cases. However, this organization was forced to cease operations because of funding limitations. There is an MSF center that has 20 beds for resuscitation and intensive care, however, it is too limited in comparison to the area's population and increased cases.
Marei Ramadan: CEO of Derna NGO_ Deir Ezzor city Finally, Marei Ramadan talked about the situation in Deir Ezzor city. He mentioned that the area witnessed a huge spread of COVID-19 in the third wave. The medical situation is bad and dire, cases are increasing, and the number of deaths is bigger than the announced numbers by the SANES health committee. In addition, community members are not committing to COVID-19 procedures due to a lack of awareness. Another factor that contributed to the COVID-19 spread in the countryside of Deir Ezzor, east of the Euphrates River, were people coming from the regime- held areas where there are no taken procedures or preventions to enter SANES areas. Regarding medical facilities’ capacities in Deir Ezzor, Ramadan says that there is only one primitive medical center that is not sufficient. Further, organizations are conducting awareness campaigns, but they are not sufficient either. As such, people are not taking the needed precautions. As for the International NGOs, they do not provide adequate health services especially in the countryside of Deir Ezzor.
Seyraddin, a participant and a journalist resident in Hawler Seyraddin says, the situation in our region is very difficult during the pandemic. We must bet on public awareness, make sure people adhere to the prevention measures in the first place. On the other hand, he stressed the failure of SANES to protect the region from the virus, because they were late in imposing a complete ban, and SANES must bear responsibility for this wave and manage it. What are the Needs: In nutshell, five main reasons contributed to the fragility of the health sector and weakening the ability to deal with Coronavirus, which are the Syrian war, the decision to close the border crossing, the canceling of Resolution 2165, economic sanctions (Caesar Act) reducing international funding, and the negative role of the World Health Organization (WHO). Participants agreed that the health and civil society organizations in the three cities in northeastern Syria need more support to confront the Coronavirus and limit it. In addition, the international bodies should take action regarding the closure of border crossings that affect UN agencies’ operations to deliver aid into northeastern Syria. As for the aids that are provided by WHO, it goes directly to the Government of Syria and thus excluded SANES because the WHO does not recognize its authority. This added fuel to the ongoing political conflict in Syria that created two separate administrations, areas under the control of the Government of Syria and the SANES areas. To date of this report, NES has not yet received any vaccination doses, and there is no solution on the horizon. The three governorates are in urgent need of PCR devices, especially in Deir Ezzor as they currently send cases to Hasakah city. The area also needs oxygen cylinders because the majority of people resort to treatment at home. In addition, Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor hospitals are in urgent need of equipment and materials necessary to deal with the pandemic, such as oximeters, protective clothing with gloves, masks, sanitizers, beds, oxygen, spray, and solar energy to save corona samples, and others. What should be done?
First, the international coalition, led by the United States of America should work on two levels in parallel. The first is to guarantee security, stability and prevent any provocations or military operations that would undermine efforts to combat Covid-19 so that the military and security forces can contribute to limiting its spread. The second is to work seriously to secure vaccine doses for the region, in addition to other medical needs, to support the health sector.
Second, the Russians must work to re-open borders and facilitate the passage of humanitarian and medical aid that would alleviate the health and economic crises. The Russians must also pressure the Government of Syria not to use the vaccine doses provided to it by WHO as a political bargaining chip.
Third, WHO should work to find new mechanisms that take into consideration providing medical support to the most vulnerable countries such as Syria. Most important, WHO should find a method to deliver medical aid and vaccine doses directly to the population without being restricted by the Government of Syria.
Fourth, donors and the United Nations should increase their humanitarian and medical assistance to NES in order to address the third wave of Covid-19. Also, they should contribute to strengthening the resilience of the population to face the economic crisis they are suffering from as an inevitable result of the Syrian war and the spread of COVID-19.
Fifth, SANES should listen to specialists’ opinions on the best methods, mechanisms, and procedures for how to beat Covid-19 and restore the economy. SANES must find more flexible solutions to preserve public health first and then address the economic needs of the population.