Health workers in the isolated enclave, home to 200,000 Kurdish IDPs, are struggling to deal with the outbreak

Q: Is coronavirus spreading in Shehba?

Frankly, it is very difficult to know if someone has coronavirus because the symptoms present similar to the symptoms of the ‘flu, common cold or bronchitis. But we heard that 41 people have been infected with this virus in Shehba, of whom 6 people died, while 29 recovered and returned home.

Cases are widespread in the villages, but there are not yet any cases in the camps [note: most of Shehba’s IDP population live in ad-hoc shelters and abandoned or rented homes, not in the five AANES-administrated camps.]

 Of course, due to the lack of capabilities, we cannot test the friends or family of infected individuals. Therefore, we expect in the future an increase in the spread of the virus, unless we receive support and are provided with the necessary equipment to conduct the tests, especially generic drugs and test kits to conduct the survey and take sputum.

When a person displays symptoms of corona when visiting the hospital or the medical points of the Kurdish Red Crescent, he is sent to the region’s Covid-19 hospital to conduct the necessary checks and follow-up. If the results are positive, the sick individual remains in the hospital until he can be treated, but if the results are negative, he is sent home, and undertakes a 14-day quarantine.

Q: Did you see any aid coming to Shehba during the coronavirus pandemic – such as masks and test kits? Or is it prevented by the regime and various groups which manage the checkpoints?

No. We did not see any assistance coming into this region for the purposes of coronavirus prevention by governmental, non-governmental or even international organizations. The only aid we received was from the Health Authority of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which arrived after many suffering and difficulties due to restrictions, such as customs fines of large sums before allowing anything to cross into Shehba, imposed by the Syrian government’s security checkpoints.

Also, the Russian forces present here since the Afrini IDPs fled to this region do not help at all in facilitating the entry of aid by overseeing these checkpoints, the violations committed there, and their actions that do not take into account the humanitarian needs of the IDPs. They do not do anything about it.

Q: Why do you think that the United Nations agencies and NGOs do not provide assistance to Shehba?

We know that the United Nations deals with partners on the ground and provides aid through those partners. It is clear that the UN does not consider the Health Authority of the Autonomous Administration or the Kurdish Red Crescent to be official government agencies. They also consider the camps located in Shehba to be informal camps, so there is no communication with either [the AANES or Shehba]. The UN relies on its partners – the [Syrian Govt.-controlled] Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syrian Government Ministry of Health  – to provide some very, very limited assistance to the Shehba area.

This is limited to water supply under UNICEF supervision, and occasional distribution of some basic food baskets through the Syrian Red Crescent from a period of time, containing only some grains and vegetable oil.

The UN directly supplies the rest of the Syrian regions, such as Idlib and other camps in Syria, but it deals with the institutions operating in Shehba indirectly through the Syrian Arab Crescent or the Aleppo Health Directorate. The political approach of the Syrian Government to this region, and the restrictions imposed by Syrian Government-affiliated checkpoints, pose obstacles to any organization, individual or press attempting to reach Shehba. This is the other reason for the absence of aid from Shehba, and the restriction of aid delivery to the official partner of the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Crescent.

Q: Do you think that the restrictions imposed on passing through the checkpoints or the restriction of aid access to Shehba will increase the spread of the Corona virus there?

Of course, these restrictions and the politically-motivated targeting of the IDPs here will increase the severity and further spread of the Corona virus. We are pessimistic about the future of the IDPs in this hostile area due to the remaining devastation and devastation from the fierce war that ISIS led here in 2016. For example, leishmaniasis is considered to be almost extinct as a disease, but Shehba is still a focus of leishmaniasis, and many of the IDPs here have been affected by this skin disease. Most of the IDPs either elderly or suffer from chronic diseases. Because of malnutrition, the displaced suffer from very fragile physical and psychological health, which places them most at risk of contracting the virus.

We call on the United Nations to put pressure on its partners in the Syrian Government to relieve the pressure of these restrictions that suffocate the region. We also call on the World Health Organization to carry out its duties towards the displaced people from Afrin, Syria, and to send masks, test kits, health equipment and others support to prevent the spread of the virus.

Q: Are people afraid of contracting coronavirus?

In general, Shehba’s IDPs had no fear of this virus until the first death. This occurred in Dair Jamal – it was an elderly person who was infected with Corona in Aleppo. His body was transported from Aleppo to the town of Dair Jamal through the regime’s checkpoints. When the displaced people heard this news, anxiety spread among them, and then another death occurred: a person in his fifties in the town of Ahras, who had come from Aleppo on a visit to his family. He died shortly after arrival, as a result of infection with the virus that he was carrying from Aleppo. And we all know that in Aleppo and the regime-controlled areas, the virus has reached an explosion situation, and it can no longer be controlled. The IDPs are afraid of sick people arriving in Shehba from Aleppo via illegal routes, via smuggling. We also know that Shehba has a very wide geography, and it is difficult to control all the entrances and exits, except for the [semi-official] entrances and exits that the Kurdish Red Crescent monitors with their ambulances.

After these two deaths, anxiety increased and fear spread among the IDPs.

Q: Do people wear a mask when in public? Where do they get them?

We can say that 75% of the IDPs use masks. A small minority do not, because they are not convinced of the idea that the mask is useful or protects you.

Because of the embargo imposed on the area and the restrictions imposed by the checkpoints of the security services of the Syrian regime, our IDPs have found and are finding great difficulty in securing masks and medical gloves, which cost a lot. Pharmacies sell masks and gloves at high prices, each mask costs 500 to 1000SYP for those who have the ability to purchase them. Those who cannot rely on handmade masks, or do without.

As for the health sector, the Health Authority in Shehba purchases masks and gloves at a great cost from Aleppo. The numbers are not sufficient because, as you know, a person cannot use a muzzle and gloves more than twice. Therefore, the Kurdish Red Crescent established a sewing workshop for making masks here in Shehba. The workshop used to manufacture about 10 thousand masks daily, and they were distributed to people in the camps and villages after sterilization according to scientific standards, but because of the lack of the material used to make masks, the workshop stopped working.

Q: Has anyone provided you with any information about the coronavirus – for example what are the symptoms, the need to wash hands, and social distance?

The Health Committee has followed a set of preventive measures, including prohibiting gatherings, bazaars, funerals, weddings, and prayers in places of worship. Brochures were also published via the communes –  they put them in bread bags – containing tips, instructions and explanations about the virus and how to prevent it. There are also vehicles equipped with sound devices and loudspeakers that travel in all the streets of Shehba and in the camps in order to guide people and encourage them to remain at home and to avoid mixing with people as much as possible. These broadcasts also encourage the preservation of a good psychological state and prevent exaggerated fear, as well as encouraging frequent drinking of fluids and other preventive matters.

The Kurdish Red Crescent plays its role in educating IDPs in the camps and villages about the necessity to avoid shaking hands, hugging, and social visits; and the necessity of washing hands with water and soap on a permanent basis, especially for children and elderly people.

Q: If you contract coronavirus, will you try to go to Aleppo Hospital?

Of course not. We have heard frequently that things are out of control in Aleppo hospitals, and some relatives and friends in Aleppo have assured us that the neglect and indifference towards the sick and injured is great. Everyone knows that the health system in Syria is completely collapsed and suffers from many problems in terms of the medical staff and the manner in which they deal with patients, whether in government or private hospitals. And of course, most Syrians cannot go to private hospitals because they are too expensive. The government-controlled regions are in a deplorable state in all respects, and many people have advised us that it is better to stay at home than to go to hospitals in Aleppo, which may worsen the condition of the sick or injured even more.

With thanks to the Human Rights Organization (Afrin) and the Kurdish Red Crescent in Shehba for facilitating this report.