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Despite spiraling coronavirus crisis, Syria’s ‘government is not concerned at all’

After years of war and economic deprivation, Syria is poorly equipped to handle COVID-19. But the coronavirus is spreading fast, both in government-controlled Damascus and in the rebel-held northwest region of the country, where it is targeting the most vulnerable. And the regime of Bashar al Assad shows no willingness to mitigate the health and humanitarian disaster. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After years of war and economic deprivation, Syria ispoorly equipped to handle COVID-19. But the virus is spreading fast in government-controlled Damascus and in the rebel-held Northwest, where, as Nick Schifrin reports, it's targeting the most vulnerable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A few miles from the Turkish border, there is no refuge from the wind and the heat and no refuge from COVID.

    Rasha Em Hussain gathers cloth from her neighbors to sew masks. She started with her own kids, and then realized the need was much greater.

  • Rasha Em Hussain (through translator):

    I'm worried about the children in the camp. I'm going to hopefully make masks for everyone. This is a humanitarian service I can provide.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    She fits masks on children whose country has been at war longer than they have been alive. Northwest Syria has over 260 coronavirus cases, including at an internally displaced persons camp where social distancing is impossible and no sanitation systems prevents proper hand washing.

    Children are especially vulnerable because, many already suffer from a parasite spread by sand flies. And after Russia and China restricted humanitarian aid to a single border crossing, some Syrians haven't received any help in four months.

    Mohannad Ismail has three children with learning disabilities.

  • Mohannad Ismail (through translator):

    The situation in the camp is very dire. Even with masks, cleaning supplies, with this coronavirus, we have kids very close to each other. I mean, it's a crime, how we're all living so close to each other.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Idlib is the final stronghold for anti-regime forces. In Idlib City, volunteers disinfect their own mosques and streets.

    But in this bustling market, nobody stays six feet apart. To get into the market, visitors walk through a homemade disinfectant machine. But those who get sick have few places for treatment.

    The U.N. says Russia and the regime have targeted more than 80 medical facilities since December. Half of all hospitals are out of service. In this COVID clinic, doctors fear for the future.

  • Salah Al Deen Salah (through translator):

    We have a fragile health system. That's why we expect a disaster if the disease spreads, God forbid. If the virus spreads here, like it's spread in the regime-controlled areas, we will really struggle.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The regime controls all of Syria, in red outside the northwest and northeast in gray. And COVID's epicenter is the heart of the Assad regime's power, Damascus.

    What are the conditions in Damascus hospitals today?

    We spoke to a physician who asked us to keep him anonymous. He's had enough.

  • Man (through translator):

    The government is not concerned at all with treating this disease. It has shown it is completely unable to deal with COVID-19.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Officially, Syria has 3,500 COVID cases and 150 deaths, but experts say, for every death reported in Damascus alone, there are 50 to 100 not reported.

  • Man (through translator):

    The government only allowed specific individuals that they trusted to enter the sections in hospitals that had COVID-19 patients. We weren't allowed, as physicians, to even use the name COVID-19, or ask how many infections there were, or even have access to patients.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A lack of hospital beds led people to self-treat at home. Damascus doctors took to Facebook to offer medical advice. And COVID patients had to buy their own oxygen.

  • Man (through translator):

    The price of oxygen is getting very expensive due to the demand, more expensive than what a normal person can afford. And many times, people are dying because they are not able to get oxygen.

  • Emma Beals:

    So, in a lot of these cases, people are dying in their homes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Emma Beals is a researcher on Syria and editor of Syria in Context.

  • Emma Beals:

    And then what happens is, these guys in these hazmat suits come. And they are taking them away to these very large new cemeteries and burying them there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's the only visual proof of increased deaths. These satellite images show a cemetery just outside Damascus. A June 27 image shows what researchers believe are burials. On August 4, that's a collection of ambulances and cars, and from January to June to August multiple rows of new graves.

    Medical workers ARE often the first fatalities. At least 65 of them have died, according to a list kept by Syrian-American activist Dr. Zaher Sahloul, who lives in Chicago.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    The people are overwhelmed, and there is no one to help. The government clearly is not there to help.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Damascus doctors are vulnerable.

    Do you have enough personal protective equipment?

  • Man (through translator):

    There is nothing provided here. We are in need of everything. The question should be the opposite, not about what we have, but what we don't have, because we are in need of everything.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    In my hospital, we have more ventilators than all of Syria. I mean, I haven't heard of any patient who's being treated in Chicago or in the U.S. or in Italy with ventilators at home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At first, the regime took COVID seriously. In March, schools closed and the government imposed curfews and travel restrictions.

    But that exacerbated an economic crisis. Food prices soared; 80 percent of Syrians are now below the poverty line. And COVID got so bad, even some supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke out.

  • Shadi Hilwa (through translator):

    All the private hospitals that receive corona cases are full. Now the private hospitals contain large numbers of COVID-19 cases, while we have very few respirators.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are also very few tests. Last month, the government opened a testing center. It quickly reached capacity, and had to close. Hundreds waiting outside were sent home untested.

    You're criticizing the regime. We are keeping you anonymous. How dangerous is it to use some of the words that you are saying and talk to us about the extent of the problem?

  • Man (through translator):

    Any criticism of the regime, whether it's about public health or any other issue, risks detention or death. Why am I talking? Because somebody must talk. There is always a need for someone to be a voice of truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Whether in Damascus or Northwest Syria, the truth is, COVID is spreading in a country that can least afford it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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