Healthcare Workers Struggle to Provide Aid in Syria

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 61-62

Waging Peace

Nine years after the Syrian civil war erupted, healthcare services in the war-torn country have significantly deteriorated. And as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Syria this summer, medical care in the displacement camps was particularly stressed. On Aug. 4, the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace hosted an online panel of field-based physicians to address this deepening crisis.

“Our priority is to keep the healthcare workers safe, especially with the scarcity of healthcare workers,” noted Dr. Bachir Tajaldin, senior program manager for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). During the ongoing Syrian civil war, many medical workers in northwest Syria fled.

From his base in Gaziantep, Turkey, Tajaldin described SAMS’ preparedness and response plan for the area since the task force started in March. “We realize that prevention of this disease is a cornerstone of our response so we mobilized our community health program along with other partners to target the communities, raise awareness and try to educate them on preventive measures,” he said.

Out of the 4.3 million people living in northwest Syria, “1.4 million are living in camps in crowded situations and the majority are living under the poverty line, so no preventative measures are taking place in the community,” he lamented. 

Dr. Hamza Alsaied Hasan, quality and development manager for SAMS in northwest Syria, noted the urgent situation in the region he covers. With borders closed between the government-controlled area of Syria and Turkey, the northwest was isolated, and confirmed cases in that area did not appear until July. Hasan stressed the need to elevate aid to people in northwest Syria. “Every day I see new camps,” he said. “The tents are small and crowded. There is poor sanitation and people are suffering from poverty.”

Dr. Mohammad Al-Haj Hamdo, health coordinator in northeast Syria for Syria Relief, a British-based NGO, described the situation in Raqqa as “very tense.” He noted the lack of testing machines and poor coordination in testing between the World Health Organization and local authorities. “People here are not afraid of the disease, they are afraid of the stigma more than the disease,” he said. “They don’t want to get infected and have to isolate.”

Noting that in northern Syria there is only one doctor per 1,000 people instead of the typical 25 per 1,000, USIP senior adviser Mona Yacoubian asked Dr. Amjad Rass how virtual training is helping to address the current health challenges.

The doctor reached out to SAMS members treating COVID-19 patients in the United States and explored their interest in giving online lectures. “Their response was overwhelming,” he said. “The first courses started in mid-May. We’ve done about 35 hours of lectures, which are all available online.” The trainings are open to everyone in the Middle East and will continue through September. “We look forward to technology-focused training with the U.S. State Department,” he added.

Elaine Pasquini





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