Syria doctors fear virus spreading faster than clinics can test

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A Syrian worker disinfectants a street to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (AP)
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Syrian workers disinfectant outside of shops on the street to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 07 August 2020

Syria doctors fear virus spreading faster than clinics can test

  • Nine years of war have battered Syria’s health sector, with hospitals damaged by bombing
  • In Damascus, doctors report that public facilities are already packed and unable to admit new patients

BEIRUT: Syria’s capital is facing a “terrible” spike in COVID-19 infections, with hospitals packed, patients scouring Facebook for advice and medics fearing the virus is spreading faster than clinics can test for it.
Authorities in government-held areas have confirmed 999 cases including 48 deaths — but even the health ministry admitted this week it lacks the “capacity... to carry out widespread testing in the provinces.”
Nine years of war have battered Syria’s health sector, with hospitals damaged by bombing, vital equipment lacking and doctors hurt or forced to flee fighting.
That has set the country up poorly to deal with the coronavirus, a new invisible danger for doctors more accustomed to dealing with trauma wounds and victims used to huddling together under bombs, not keeping apart.
Week on week, COVID-19 appears to be spreading faster.
From July 30 to August 6, the Syrian health ministry logged more than 260 new cases, compared to only 154 infections the previous week.
“There has been a massive spread among cities,” the ministry admits, saying there are only 25,000 hospital beds available in government-controlled areas.
In Damascus, doctors report that public facilities are already packed and unable to admit new patients.
“It’s extremely terrifying,” said Dr. Nubugh Al-Awa, dean of Damascus University’s medical school.
“Many people are going to state-run hospitals but unfortunately all the rooms are full,” Awa told a health-focused Facebook page updating Syrians on coronavirus cases in their country.
“Patients in a bad state are not admitted to the intensive care unit unless another patients dies.”
In June, the World Health Organization said it was “concerned” about the spread of COVID-19 in Syria, citing “poor infrastructure and fragile health systems vastly weakened by conflict.”
But Health Minister Nizar Yaziji said Western sanctions against the government, not war, had hamstrung the country’s response.
“There are huge difficulties in getting ventilators because of the sanctions that have been imposed,” Yaziji said, claiming they also made it impossible for Syria to import medicines, sign deals with pharmaceutical companies or pay outside suppliers.
But the United Nations and countries including Russia and China have provided direct medical support to Syria.
With cases on the rise, authorities in Damascus recently ordered gyms, sports centers and summer schools to close indefinitely.
Seven football players from the national team tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Syrian Sports Federation.
But doctors in Damascus say the official case numbers reflect only those admitted to hospital, not infected individuals who may be staying at home.
“The real numbers are much higher than the official ones,” said a doctor in the capital who spoke on condition on anonymity.
Instead of squeezing into heaving hospitals, Syrians are opting for online medical advice.
Facebook pages that once kept tens of thousands of followers updated on where shelling hit have recently redirected their attention to a new invisible threat.
With names like “Sterilize It!” and “Syrian Health Platform,” the pages publish the latest developments on the novel coronavirus and its spread around the world.
More than 150,000 people follow “Stethoscope,” which publishes free medical advice from some 200 doctors and pharmacists on how to best avoid or treat a COVID-19 infection.
Its founder, Dr. Hussein Najjar, is swamped.
Typing frantically at his computer keyboard, the nose and throat doctor splits the hundreds of queries he receives each day across doctors in various Syrian cities.
“After the coronavirus became widespread, we mobilized all our resources to respond to all these questions,” the 37-year-old told AFP.
In the past, Najjar said, “our page would step up when the fighting or mortars intensified.”
“But our mission today is even harder because the virus is everywhere, not just on a front line,” he said.
His phone pings incessantly: questions in messages to the Facebook page, comments in reaction to its informative videos or worries sent in through the “Stethoscope” mobile app.
Founded in 2017, the page originally aimed to be “a voice for Syrian doctors.”
But now, Najjar said, it served as a “virtual clinic,“
“We can’t sit here with our hands in our laps. We need to make every possible effort,” he told AFP, putting on a brave face for this new battle.
“We will not surrender.”


Haftar agrees to lift Libya oil blockade with conditions

Updated 18 September 2020

Haftar agrees to lift Libya oil blockade with conditions

  • Pro-Haftar groups supported by the Petroleum Facilities Guard blockaded key oilfields and export terminals on January 17

BENGHAZI: Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar announced Friday a conditional lifting of a months-long blockade on oilfields and ports by his forces.
“We have decided to resume oil production and export on condition of a fair distribution of revenues” and guarantee they “will not be used to support terrorism,” he said on television.
Pro-Haftar groups supported by the Petroleum Facilities Guard blockaded key oilfields and export terminals on January 17 to demand what they called a fair share of hydrocarbon revenues.
The blockade, which has resulted in more than $9.8 billion in lost revenue, according to National Petroleum Company (NOC), has exacerbated electricity and fuel shortages in the country.
Dressed in his military uniform, Haftar said the command of his forces had “put aside all military and political considerations” to respond to the “deterioration of living conditions” in Libya, which has Africa’s largest oil reserves.
The announcement comes after hundreds of Libyans protested last week in the eastern city of Benghazi, one of Haftar’s strongholds, and other cities over corruption, power cuts and shortages in petrol and cash.
Protesting peacefully at first, protesters on Sunday set fire to the headquarters of the parallel eastern government in Benghazi and attacked the police station in Al-Marj.
Police officers fired live ammunition to disperse them in Al-Marj, leaving at least one dead and several wounded, according to witnesses and the UN mission in Libya.
Libya has been in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The country’s oil revenues are managed by the NOC and the central bank, both based in Tripoli, which is also the seat of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
Haftar runs a rival administration based in the country’s east.
Haftar— who has the backing of Egypt, the UAE and Russia — launched an offensive against Tripoli in April last year.
After 14 months of fierce fighting, pro-GNA forces backed by Turkey expelled his troops from much of western Libya and pushed them to Sirte, the gateway to Libya’s rich oil fields and export terminals.