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Syrian civilians prepare for a new battle with invisible foe: coronavirus

The brutal war in Syria is now in its 10th year, and amid renewed bombing by the air corps of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers, a new worry looms: coronavirus. The country’s health care system has been destroyed in the conflict, and people who have already suffered so much are now rushing to produce homemade COVID-19 tests, ventilators and disinfectant. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Syria, and the brutal war in its 10th year.

    Amid depravity and renewed bombing by the air corps of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers, a new worry, coronavirus.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, people who have suffered so much now are preparing for a foe they can't see.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a small office in Northwest Syria, engineers prepare for another war, against COVID. For weeks, they have feared a nightmare, an outbreak within a war zone, so they're making homemade COVID-19 tests.

  • Ayoub Halak (through translator):

    There is only one testing machine in all of Idlib province for four million people. It's not enough. So, we decided to start designing a machine that would allow for testing multiple samples for coronavirus in a short period of time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To get to their workshop, Ayoub Halak walks through a homemade disinfecting machine. And they're also making ventilators out of wooden boards and plastic tubing.

    They hope to make hundreds for local hospitals.

  • Ra’ed Sawan (through translator):

    We decided to create a ventilator with what was available. There is a big shortage of ventilators in hospitals here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a nearby textile factory, workers make masks that will cost about $4 a box, a discount compared to the $12 set imported from China.

  • Ahmed Abdul Rahman (through translator):

    There's been a huge increase in the demand for masks here because of the virus threat. We imported all of the raw material from Turkey, and we're stitching everything here by hand.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After 10 years of war, Syria is ill-prepared for another catastrophe. Syria's health care system is destroyed. 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. And that was before COVID.

    And Dr. Ahmed Satouf fears coronavirus' arrival is just a matter of time.

  • Ahmed Satouf (through translator):

    It would be a disaster. We don't have enough masks. We don't have enough hand sanitizer or even a properly functioning sewage system.

    We can't imagine how bad it could be, how many people could be infected, if coronavirus reached us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last year, the Syrian regime and Russian military launched a major campaign to recapture Idlib. In January, they declared a cease-fire, and the bombing slowed.

    But, this week, Syrian and Russian planes launched airstrikes designed to retake the opposition's final stronghold. Idlib has been the last point of refuge for millions of Syrians internally displaced. And in cramped camps, social distancing is impossible.

    And the pandemic put basic needs even more out of reach. Food prices are spiraling. Nearly 10 million people are now food-insecure. Residents struggle to find enough water. Shortages make handwashing a luxury. As for power, in some places, generators are the only source.

    And these Syrians, who have lost their homes and all their rights, connect to a cause sparked 6,000 miles away.

    Artist Aziz Al-Asmar says his canvases go where lives have been extinguished. He created a George Floyd memorial on all that's left of a blown-out building.

  • Aziz Al-Asmar (through translator):

    There used to be people here with memories, families living here with children. The killing of George Floyd makes us think of the killing of young people from the Syrian regime's chemical gas. We are with black Americans and feel their pain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, as is the case for so many in Syria, a gesture of humanity from those who've experienced inhumanity has now been defaced.

    Three hundred miles away, in Kurdish-controlled Northeast Syria, more than 100,000 people live in the Al Hol camp.

    Health care workers do their best to sanitize this medical tent and teach proper handwashing. There's not enough testing to know whether COVID cases are low. But here in the Northeast, at least the Kurdish Red Crescent can create a medical facility without fear of attack.

    For now, Syrian civilians are doing what they can to prevent another nightmare.

    Fatima is 8.

  • Fatima (through translator):

    Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, and when you sneeze or cough, you do this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fatima is younger than the war, but now has to prepare for another battle.

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

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