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Health

Idlib sees uptick in virus cases amid Russian strikes

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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A member of the White Helmets disinfects a tent at a displacement camp in rural Idlib. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defence]

A barrage of Russian airstrikes on the Syrian province of Idlib has driven dozens of displaced families who had recently returned to their homes back to the displacement camps, a member of the White Helmets said.

Many had decided to return to their hometowns out of fear that overcrowding at the camps would put them in danger in the event of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, said White Helmets member Khaled al-Khatib.

These fears appear to have been justified, he told Diyaruna, as the resumption of airstrikes and resulting movement of civilians back to the camps has coincided with a widespread outbreak of coronavirus in north-western Syria.

"The number of coronavirus infections and deaths among the civilian population in Idlib has increased sharply in recent weeks," al-Khatib said.

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The White Helmets have set up several checkpoints in Idlib province, where they are taking measures to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus, including taking temperatures. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defence]

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Idlib schools are being intensively disinfected before opening them to students to safeguard their health. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defence]

He also noted that the initial wave of displacement was triggered by an earlier campaign of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, which led to the establishment of dozens of formal and informal displacement camps in the first place.

These camps now host more than 1.5 million people, living under very difficult conditions.

According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), there is scarce access to water and poor sanitation inside the camps. And control measures, such as physical distancing, hand-washing and isolating are challenging for most camp residents.

'Sharp increase' in infections

Last week, MSF said north-west Syria had seen a sharp increase in the number of coronavirus patients, reporting 10 times more cases than a month ago.

As of September 22nd, MSF said, 640 people had tested positive for the new coronavirus in the region, almost 30% of them health workers.

On September 14th alone, it reported, 80 new cases were recorded, the highest one-day total since the first case was recorded in early July.

Testing has remained limited throughout that time, MSF said, which raises doubts about the real rate of transmission and the true number of infections.

Al-Khatib said many medical and relief organisations are trying to curb the virus outbreak in the camps by disinfecting common areas and conducting awareness campaigns.

They have formed and trained new teams of volunteers to carry out this work.

Last month, the White Helmets and other relief and medical organisations operating in Idlib warned that humanitarian disaster in Idlib would be inevitable if the airstrikes continued.

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