COVID-19 is spreading through the territory of two hostile regimes that border the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), home of the Rojava Revolution.
To its north, Turkey has 112,261 officially confirmed cases (more than Iran, the previous centre of the pandemic in the Middle East) and 2900 deaths as of April 28.
The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only reported 43 cases, but the Rojava Information Centre (RIC) says that coronavirus is “spreading throughout Syria, from Deir-ez-Zor to Damascus”.
While there are patients suspected to have COVID-19 quarantined in hospitals in the AANES, the absence of proper testing kits in this liberated zone means that they cannot be confirmed.
On April 17, the New York Times reported that the COVID-19 death of a man from Rojava was reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) only to the Assad regime, but the information was not passed on to the AANES. This strange story encapsulates much of what is holding back international medical aid to this region.
Salih Muslim, former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in north and east Syria and current member of the co-chairs committee of the PYD, said: “The death of this man took place in a hospital under the control of the Assad regime. He was taken first to Qamishlo hospital, in the small Syrian government-controlled security zone in that city, and then, because they did not have the right equipment there, he was moved to Hesekê hospital.
“Both these hospitals are under the Assad regime's control. After he died, it was reported that one of his family members had the Coronavirus as well.”
Since January Russia has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block all UN bodies from giving direct aid to north and east Syria.
“International organisations say that they have sent about 20 tonnes of medicine and equipment to help AANES deal with the pandemic, but as these come through the airports controlled by the Assad regime, only a small proportion gets through to AANES," said Muslim.
“A few international aid workers are working with Heyva Sor/Kurdish Red Crescent so we are getting very little help to cope with the pandemic.
“We would like international aid and health agencies to work directly with local government institutions in AANES and also with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“If they continue to only relate to the Assad regime this is not only unfair but it also means that international agencies will not be getting the correct information on the pandemic in Syria. At the same time this means the people in AANES are also not getting important information from these international bodies.
“COVID19 is a global threat and the AANES institutions are trying to cooperate with Syrian government in dealing with this threat but they are not interested in helping us. So we have been forced to use our own resources to respond to the pandemic.”
As if this situation were not bad enough, the Recep Tayyip Erdogan regime in Turkey is also “weaponising” COVID-19 against the Kurdish people, Muslim said.
“The Erdogan regime is deliberately introducing COVID-19 infections into the Afrin and Serêkaniyê hospitals because it wants to spread the coronavirus in AANES.
“The SDF is putting much more resources into that area to try and stop the spread, setting up checkpoints and doing some basic testing for COVID-19. But it is now spring, and with the snow melting, the border area is hard to control.
“Apart from what the Erdogan regime is doing in Afrin and Serêkaniyê, we can also see how it discriminates against those regions in Turkey that have mainly Kurdish populations in its response to COVID-19.
“These regions do not get the same resources for testing and treatment. By contrast in northern Syria we are giving equal treatment to all the nationalities who live there.”
The AANES has been placed under curfew since March 23 to contain the pandemic. The curfew has already been extended several times, most recently until May 1.
All schools and other educational institutions have been closed since then and an online teaching system, conducted through Rojava TV, was rapidly introduced to prevent students from being deprived of their education right. It is broadcast six hours a day, but power blackouts — which the revolutionary institutions are trying to fix — often interrupt the online classes.
According to Rojin Ehmed, spokesperson for the Health Committee in Qamishlo, quarantine centres have been established throughout north and east Syria, and a special coronavirus centre has been established in Derik.
Border crossings are open exclusively for goods traffic, and teams from the health committees also take fever measurements there. All vehicles are disinfected before they enter the autonomous area.
The April 22 RIC report on COVID-19 preparedness in the AANES outlines how desperate the situation is in area liberated by the Rojava Revolution:
• Population of north and east Syria: 4 million
• Internally Displaced People (IDP) and refugees in the area: 600,000
• IDPs living in camps and ad hoc settlements: 200,000
• Civilians left without water during Turkish closures of the Allouk water station: 700,000–1,110,000
• Public hospitals damaged during the war against ISIS and 2019 invasion by Turkey: 9 out of 11
• Public health centres currently functioning as a result: 26 out of 279
• Functioning polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits before the 2019 Turkish invasion: 2
• Functioning PCR test kits after the 2019 Turkish invasion: 0, through 2 additonal kits have since been obtained without UN help by the AANES
• Test kits supplied by WHO to the Assad regime: 1200
• Test kits supplied by WHO to the AANES: 0
• Ventilators available in the AANES: 40
• ICU beds currently online in the AANES: 0 out of 64 being prepared
• Projected infection rate in the refugee and ISIS detainee camps: 10%
• Number of COVID-19 cases before the hospital system is over-run in north and east Syria: 460
“In this very difficult situation our health workers are finding ways to do more testing, more disinfecting and sanitising and even to make some of our own equipment to deal with COVID-19," Muslim said.
“We are encouraging people to stay at home if possible and we have a very good public health education campaign about COVID-19. We are very thankful to our people for taking this threat seriously. But there is not much we can do beyond this.”