Idlib, Syria’s final rebel stronghold, struggles to get lifesaving aid amid COVID spike

Government shelling killed a dozen people in Syria’s northwest Idlib province Wednesday. Idlib is the final stronghold for rebels still fighting the Assad regime. But the province is also under attack from a different threat — its most severe wave of COVID-19. The delta variant is hitting hospitals already weakened by war. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was an especially violent day today in Syria. Damascus saw its deadliest bombing in four years, when more than a dozen government soldiers were killed in a bus attack.

    And in Northwest Idlib, shelling killed ten, including four children. Idlib is the final stronghold for rebels who are fighting the Assad regime. Today, it is facing its most severe wave of COVID.

  • A warning now:

    The images in this story can be difficult to watch.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, COVID is hitting hospitals already weakened by war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Idlib's newest COVID ward, the patients are too young to under stand why they cry. Iman is 3 and suffering from malnutrition and now COVID.

    Others are even more vulnerable. The youngest patient in this children's hospital, also named Iman, is 15 days old. It is heartbreaking work for doctors who have to go home and care for their own children.

  • Dr. Sobhi Sam, Pediatrician (through translator):

    Children are dying. The Delta variant in particular is very strong, and hitting children particularly badly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Sobhi Sam is a pediatrician. He struggles to give life to those who are supposed to have so long to live.

  • Dr. Sobhi Sam (through translator):

    We ask our fellow residents of Northern Syria, take the vaccine, as a social responsibility, because this is the reality we are living in right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ali Al-Hassan's reality is in his garden, thinking of his 63-year-old father, Ibrahim. When IBEX got sick, Ali had to visit seven health care centers to find an open bed.

    On this day, Ali's five children, among Ibrahim's 13 grandchildren, help their father tend the family garden, their destination, Ibrahim's grave. He died of COVID three weeks ago.

  • Ali Al-Hassan, Idlib Resident (through translator):

    He died about a week after we found a spot in the hospital for him. It was very difficult and tiring for all of us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ali and his kids plant seeds that Ibrahim will never get to see in this area that has already seen so much death.

    Last month, confirmed cases in Idlib almost doubled, largely due to the Delta variant. Doctors rush to restart this man's heart. This time, he lives. Idlib's hospitals are beyond capacity. There are less than 130 ICU beds for the province's four million residents.

    Dr. Absi Al-Fouad is a doctor in Idlib's largest hospital for COVID-19 patients.

  • Dr. Absi Al-Fouad, SAMS Hospital (through translator):

    It's taking a massive physical and mental toll on our health care workers. The PPE and oxygen supply we have now is not nearly enough to handle the influx of cases coming into this hospital.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite that influx, Russia and the Syrian regime continue to attack. The U.N. says, in the last two years, they have targeted more than 80 medical facilities.

    The need is most acute in Idlib's refugee camps. Miles away from the Turkish border, a million-and-a-half people call this home. At these camps, residents who are younger than the war are dependent on aid workers for water and oxygen. Canisters are delivered into tents by the NGO Rahma, Arabic for mercy.

    Nour Qarmash is the coordinator.

  • Nour Qarmash, Coordinator, Rahma Worldwide:

    The whole situation is deteriorating and getting from bad to worst.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But these canisters can't meet the need. There's a massive oxygen shortage. One tank can cost as much as $130.

  • Nour Qarmash:

    We, as NGOs, we're trying our best to deliver the aid to the need, but the need is greater than the help we're getting from the communities, from the countries and the WHO.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The WHO, or World Health Organization, is providing some AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinovac vaccines. But less than 1 percent of Idlib's residents are fully vaccinated because of a lack of supply and some hesitancy.

    But, for many, COVID is only one of their worries. The U.N. says 97 percent live in extreme poverty. COVID exacerbated struggles of even those relatively well-off; 28-year-old teacher Radwan Amin got sick in April.

  • Radwan Amin, Teacher:

    I had to work from home even though I am very sick on typing Word documents for university students. This work doesn't provide very much, but it helped me survive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Others have no choice but to get their hands dirty. And car mechanics in Idlib's industrial zone like Abu Mahmoud Hamwi can't afford masks.

  • Abu Mahmoud Hamwi, Car Mechanic (through translator):

    The health offices keep bothering us about masks, but I work here and have grease and oil on my hands all day. I would need 10 masks a day, 10 masks, five liras per mask. That's 50 liras. That feeds a whole family.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Families continue to struggle. But after years of distance, regional governments are gradually reengaging with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite a Human Rights Watch report released today saying Syrian refugees returning to the country face grave human rights abuses and persecution in a country decimated by conflict and widespread destruction.

    But now the volunteers known as White Helmets, who used to spend their days trying to save victims of bombings, are more often handling the victims of COVID. And their ambulances that once went to hospitals now go straight to cemeteries.

    For years, Idlib residents have witnessed far too much death. Now they are stalked by COVID.

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

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