Reading Syrian state media, you might be left with the impression that the country’s coronavirus outbreak was wholly steady and under control.
Every day for the past couple of weeks, SANA, the Assad regime’s news service, has reported roughly seventy new cases, a modest number of recoveries, and a handful of deaths. It tracks a few heartening recoveries, including one recently of a young pregnant woman, with more attention than the spread of the virus itself.
All this is in service of false idea that the pandemic, which has killed tens of thousands in the world’s most developed nations, has largely left Syria be. State media wants this to be seen as a deliverance following a decade of civil conflict.
Other sources are more concerned, and their work presents a picture that is rather more concerning.
Last week, in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib, the provisional government reported its first confirmed death from the virus. Even for this remote part of the country, with access to the outside world decidedly restricted, public health officials fear a widespread outbreak is inevitable.
But of course, Syria’s metropole is affected at least as badly as its periphery. An anonymous health worker, writing in The Guardian, gave the lie to the regime’s deception.
Along with the shortages of medical supplies and protective equipment which have dogged countries across the globe, the author wrote of the lack of medical technology. The rich try to buy their own ventilators while the poor stay at home to cope with the effects of the disease as best they can. ‘We see patients lying in the streets crying for help.’
On the government’s numbers, the writer is dismissive. ‘None of us believe these figures to be accurate.
‘The deputy director of health for Damascus estimated the real number of Covid cases to be 112,500 in the Damascus area alone.’
Meanwhile, ‘We have hundreds of unconfirmed coronavirus-related deaths every day. Aleppo hospitals are running out of body bags.
‘Every day, the list of healthcare providers who have died from the virus gets longer’, they write. The conservative estimate suggests over thirty healthcare workers have died from the virus.
Reporting by the news service Syria in Context suggests that Syria is full of virus cases – its estimates hold that 85,000 people had the virus in Damascus alone at the beginning of August.
All these cases which have not been recorded in official statistics, and their very weight of numbers is having the long-feared effect on Syria’s social fabric, on medical facilities, and on those whose health has already been weakened by the war’s dire circumstances.
In Idlib there are some international charities coordinating events. But there are fewer than ten ventilators available for use, and many people are without permanent accommodation, many thousands of them already living in conditions of hunger and illness.
In the rest of Syria, the international response has been muted, built largely on the back of the regime’s deception. In April and May, the United Nations had planned to build 14 labs to test for the virus. In reality, it built four. On testing, just four per cent of the target number of tests were done.
Not only is the World Health Organisation taking the regime’s false numbers at face value; it appears to be calibrating its reaction according to this lying scale.
All this could have been predicted. The regime has deceived and dissembled for the last decade. In wartime, it has lied about things as deadly as pandemic disease. And it has distorted mortality figures with the liberal use of other causes, to hide deaths which occurred under torture, or deaths in the country’s archipelago of prisons, as victims of a nationwide spate of heart attacks.
When the pandemic was just revving up, there were startling results of incidental testing. When foreign countries repatriated their people from Syria, they noted large numbers who had the virus. Travellers from Syria to Pakistan, upon being tested at home, showed a very high prevalence of the disease even months ago. Pakistan even blamed Syria for introducing its first cases of the virus.
Dictatorships lie and they lie with impunity. It perhaps shows touching naivete to assume they would refrain from lying about this. Even after Iran was pictured in March digging mass graves for virus victims, the WHO continued to take its self-reported data on fatalities and infections at face value.
Only in July, months after other estimates put Iran at the epicentre of the pandemic, did its leaders let slip that they estimated their country had suffered up to 25 million cases.
Syria is likely to have its own mass graves for virus victims, in Najha, a favoured cemetery with a host of cynical official uses, outside Damascus. The bodies are smuggled away and are denied the usual rites and ceremonies.
In Syria, the regime’s habitual dishonesty continues to hold its population in contempt. Syrians are forced to rely on WhatsApp rumours and to fear that allowing the disease to pass through the population while lying about the extent of its spread has become government policy.
Once more, deceit has characterised the regime’s response to crisis. But in a country that is surrounded and pervaded by epidemic disease, to lie about its spread does little more than mislead the world. And the regime’s continued contemptuous deceit serves as surely as prosecuting a dreadful civil war to kill yet more of Syria’s people.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.