A medic on the frontline of Syria’s coronavirus battle speaks out

Dr Ihsan is a cardiologist working in a hospital in northern Syria. Like many hospitals in Syria, there are no facilities for Covid-19 patients at the hospital where he works.

Many medical centres in the area lack the vital equipment, such as x-ray machines, CT scanners, and laboratories needed to treat patients with Covid-19. Dr Ihsan describes the important precautions that his staff take when treating patients at the hospital.

“At the hospital, we are taking precautionary measures and wearing masks and gloves. All patients have their temperature checked before entering the hospital and are asked if they have symptoms of coronavirus. If they are symptomatic, they are sent to the quarantine centre.”

The reality of statistics in Syria

Covid-19 reached northern Syria relatively late, but is now spreading quickly. Dr Ihsan worries that the number of confirmed cases could be higher than official figures show.

“The total number of cases [are] much higher, as not all those with symptoms take a test. Many people are afraid to have a positive test result, and decide to isolate and stay home until they feel better.”

Dealing with the Coronavirus was easier during the summer, as people were able to practice social distancing by spending time outside. However, the freezing Syrian winter makes social distancing much more difficult, and with up to 10 people living in each tent, the virus can spread much faster.

Challenges inside refugee camps

Due to the deep poverty faced by people in the camps, not everyone can afford to buy masks and even with the knowledge of how to practice good hygiene, not everyone has the means to do so. This puts people living in the camps at very high risk of infection, with little means to control an outbreak.

“Due to communal bathrooms, clean water is not available all the time. People are unable to regularly wash their hands, as they do not have water or soap. If someone gets coronavirus, it is impossible for them to quarantine as they are living in a tent with six other people. We pray to Allah for help for these people,” Dr Ihsan tells us.

Life in a crisis zone during the pandemic is taking its toll on doctors like Dr Ihsan.

“We see a lot of sad cases, some of which we are unable to forget. For example, 4 years ago, an air strike happened at the entrance of our hospital. A guard, a nurse, and two others were killed. We were unable to do anything for them.”

The heart-breaking side of being a doctor

He describes a young man of just 24 who came to him. He had no history of medical conditions and was showing only mild symptoms.

“Two days later, his situation got worse. His oxygen saturation level was very low. I sent him to the quarantine centre in the hospital, where he was admitted. His oxygen saturation levels dropped even further and he was given oxygen. They then did a scan, which showed a worrying picture. I hope he recovers soon.”

Dr Ihsan also worries about the impact of winter on those who already suffer from health conditions.

“For those with chronic illnesses, winter is very dangerous, as getting the flu can worsen their condition. They would require quality medical care. However, Covid-19 even affects healthy people. This means that the situation is even more difficult for those dealing with malnutrition, chronic illnesses, heart disease, or with issues in blood pressure or blood sugar.”

Hopes for the future

Looking to the future, Dr Ihsan feels uncertain.

“Thinking about 10 years into the future feels impossible. At the moment, we can barely think about the next month as we don’t know what is going to happen. Many people are dreaming about going back to their homes.

“We know that more than 1.5 million were displaced in the last few months. So, we dream about peace in this area, we dream about all displaced people being able to go home, leaving their tents and their miserable situation.”

For a population that has lived through a decade of crisis, Covid-19 is just another tragic reality to deal with. Although people are very fearful of becoming ill, Dr Ihsan reports that, to many, the virus is just another crisis, that pales in comparison to the horrors that they have already lived through.

“People here are not very scared about Covid-19, because they have already been through so much. They have dealt with airstrikes, displacement, miserable living conditions and losing loved ones. So, many consider Covid-19 akin to a mild infection, and nothing compared to the injuries caused by air strikes, psychological trauma or the poverty they have been living in.”

Islamic Relief is at the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 outbreak in Syria. As part of efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus, we gave 84 health facilities personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gloves, and medical gowns, as well as no-contact thermometers, hand disinfectant gels, disinfectant sprays and other sterilisation solutions. We ran awareness-raising campaigns in health facilities, which we also supported to establish quarantine areas.

Read more in our report. Help us continue to be a lifeline for those still suffering after a decade of crisis: please donate to our Syria appeal.