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After 10 years of civil war, COVID-19 takes hold in Syrian opposition’s last stronghold

As the 10-year anniversary of the civil war in Syria looms and fighting rages on in the hard-hit city of Idlib, Syria, doctors contending with the pandemic are stretched to their limits. In the last three months, COVID-19 infection rates in the Syrian opposition’s final stronghold have increased more than 50 percent, while the virus has been targeting the most vulnerable. Ali Rogin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, a German court issued a landmark ruling, sentencing a former Syrian intelligence officer to prison for crimes against humanity.

    It's the first case over state-sponsored torture under President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

    Meanwhile, as the 10 year anniversary of the civil war looms, and fighting rages on in the hard-hit province of Idlib. Syria is ill-equipped to handle the invisible threat of COVID-19.

    As the "NewsHour"s Ali Rogin reports it targets the most vulnerable in this fragile place.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Inside Idlib's largest COVID-19 hospital, doctors are stretched to their limits. As soon as one bed frees up, a new patient enters. Body bags line the corridors.

    In the Syrian opposition's final stronghold, medical workers say they have no means to battle the pandemic.

  • Dr. Yousef Al-Sheikh (through translator):

    We need the international community to increase its support. We have reached a point where the medical system has collapsed and the resources we have are not enough to control the widespread impact of the virus.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In the last three months, infection rates in Idlib infection rates in Idlib have increased over 50 percent. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been over 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Northwest Syria.

    An uneasy cease-fire last year means fewer war-wounded bodies. But critical care units are overwhelmed with patients gasping for air. The U.N. says there are 162 ventilators and 234 ICU beds available for Idlib's four million residents.

    After 10 years of war, Syria is ill-prepared to handle COVID. Half of all hospitals are out of service or partially functioning. The U.N. says, in the last two years, Russia and the regime have targeted more than 80 medical facilities.

  • Dr. Salah Al Deen Salah (through translator):

    Because of the shelling and regime's attacks on hospitals, we have not enough hospitals for treatment.

    And people have been displaced from their towns and cities and living in crowded camps without health care, healthy water, social distancing. They are feeling despair, because the international community abandoned them and did not prevent the regime's attacks on them.

  • Yahya Arja (through translator):

    He told us: "I will get better. I will eat fruits and honey, and, hopefully, in two or three days, I will get better."

  • Ali Rogin:

    The virus left Yahya Arja's family grieving. His uncle Ahmed Arja died from COVID-19 complications within 10 days.

  • Yahya Arja (through translator):

    We told him: "Let's take you to the hospital, so someone can take a look at you." But he refused to go. He didn't even believe the virus was real. He thought it was just something there to scare people.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Misinformation is widespread. In this busy Idlib city market, few people wear masks. No one stays six feet apart.

  • Yahya Arja (through translator):

    I'm asking people to wear masks, to stop going to social gatherings, to stop taking this lightly, because, seriously, the virus is dangerous. If you don't get it, or if you don't get serious symptoms, then it's going to impact those older than you that are around you.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But lockdowns are difficult to enforce when closed markets mean no income. Eighty percent of Syrians are now below the poverty line. One box of masks here costs twice a day's wage.

    Twenty miles north, in Idlib's countryside, masks are nonexistent. Infections here are rising. These makeshift tents house nearly one million people who fled Russian and regime airstrikes. Fresh snow covers plastic tents this winter. The season winter brings fierce wind and rain, flooding their homes.

    As temperatures sink, children chop down olive trees for firewood. Ahmed Daboul burns the branches with plastic and cardboard to keep his 20-day-old newborn warm.

  • Ahmed Daboul (through translator):

    I don't have anything else to keep him warm. It's very difficult here in the winter. Burning plastic, of course, impacts me and my children. It's not good for our respiratory health.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Shared public bathrooms are a breeding ground for disease. Handwashing signs are posted on public sinks thousands use. Fawziya Khalifa rocks her newborn near a fire, but worries about her future.

    She says it's been five months since they have received aid.

  • Fawziya Khalifa (through translator):

    We have no bread, no food, nothing, no heater, no blankets, no oven for us to cook. We have nothing. Go look inside that tent over there, everyone is sick.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But, as COVID takes hold, young children try to learn about a disease they have little control over.

  • Six-year-old Hyaa:

  • Hyaa (through translator):

    They gave us these papers and told us to read them and stay away from each other. When we go to school, they tell us to wear masks and not to cough in anyone's face, because you could get coronavirus.

  • Ali Rogin:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

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