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Lift Syrian sanctions before Coronavirus creates a perfect storm

Steven Sahiounie, journalist and political commentator

The US and EU sanctions on Syria have taken a toll on the health and welfare of the Syrian people for many years.  They were designed to ‘hurt’ the Syrian government, but have only hurt the innocent unarmed Syrian civilians caught in the middle of a US-NATO-EU attack on the Syrian population for ‘regime-change’ which failed, but the sanctions linger on like outdated ammunitions. Cornelia Meyer, a macro-economist, has warned recently, “The battle for Idlib has brought the refugee crisis to a new boiling point. When coupled with the economic and psychological impact of COVID-19, we have a perfect storm.”

The Syrian Ministry of Health is highly organized and works in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO).  Even after 9 years of war, the University Medical Centers, and local public hospitals across Syria are functioning, staffed and offering free service.  Despite the western media disinformation, which has written about ‘the last doctor in Aleppo’ and the ‘last hospital in Syria’ the Syrian health care system never collapsed, except in areas that were occupied by terrorists.  The ‘Islamic State of Idlib offers no schooling for children, no health services, or policing of common crimes.  Idlib is run like the ‘wild-wild-west’ of cowboy movies, and survival of the fittest rules.  The weak, unarmed and defenseless civilians, who are most often a terrorist’s widow with small children, are the suffering masses.

WHO Representative in Syria, Dr. Nima Saeed Abid, told Sham FM media in Syria yesterday that the possibility of Coronavirus, COVID-19, hitting Syria is high, given the fact that neighboring countries have been affected: Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Occupied Palestine.  Dr. Abid credits the Syrian government measures, which include closing schools, universities, churches, mosques, sporting events, and others which gather large groups in a closed place.  Additional measures taken were to close the international borders and institute temperature screening at airport arrivals, the closure of the courthouses, and the postponement of scheduled parliamentary elections.

Mujtahed is one of the largest public hospitals in Damascus, but vital medicines can take months to arrive and medical equipment sits unused for lack of replacement parts due to US-EU sanctions. Equipment made by US or European companies, such as General Electric or Siemens, is impossible to repair because of sanctions. Even computer software issues can result in a machine failure, and without the possibility of repair due to sanctions. 

“You’re dealing with patients, human beings. We should be exempted from sanctions, but in reality, we’re not,” said Wassim Bin Khadraa. “It’s a simple thing, a part costing a few thousand dollars stops a machine worth hundreds of thousands, but you can only get it from the company. You can’t get any alternative.” Dr. Salah Ismail of Mujtahed’s emergency care section explained that foreign suppliers don’t dare send anything to Syria for fear of penalties under the sanctions.

Sanctions imposed by the US and EU comprise one of “the most complicated and far-reaching sanction regimes ever imposed,” said the UN special rapporteur Idriss Jazairy, who reported the “negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights in Syria.” The UN reported that international private companies are unwilling to transact with Syria without being accused of violating the sanctions.

US sanctions also apply to any transaction that involves a US connection: for example, non-Americans transacting in goods with more than 10% US content, or use of US dollars as the transaction currency. Penalties include $250,000 per civil violation and $1 million per criminal violation, with the possibility of jail time. US sanctions on Syria, under Executive Order 13582, make it prohibited to export or supply any services to Syria from the US or by a US citizen. Furthermore, the property of any person in the US who has provided goods or services to the Syrian government will be blocked, and all assets will be frozen.  

At Damascus Children’s Hospital cancer ward, doctors were struggling with a critical shortage of specialty drugs to treat their young patients. WHO officials blame US-EU sanctions for severely restricting pharmaceutical imports. Syria produced 90 percent of the medicines it needed before the war, but anti-cancer drugs were imported.  “The impact of economic sanctions imposed on Syria heavily affected the procurement of some specific medicine including anti-cancer medicines,” said Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Syria. “The sanctions were preventing many international pharmaceutical companies from dealing with the Syrian authorities as well as hindering foreign banks in handling payments for imported drugs,” she added.

The WHO brings medicines and medical supplies into Syria, such as generic drugs from sources in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. However, US products cannot be imported due to the sanctions situation, Hoff said. She added the WHO cannot keep up with the demand, because there are critical shortages of insulin, anesthetics, specific antibiotics needed for intensive care, serums, intravenous fluids, and other blood products and vaccines.

Pharmex, is a state-owned company that buys drugs for government hospitals across Syria, which provides free medical services to all Syrians, was able to provide only 5-10 percent of the cancer medication that is required because of sanctions.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a new strain that was discovered in 2019 and has not been previously identified in humans. Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, an infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death. Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

In Idlib, medics fear the coronavirus would spread widely, though Doctors and aid workers say they have recorded no cases so far.  However, they warned that camps could not cope in the event of an outbreak, with hospitals already struggling to treat even basic illnesses. The ‘Islamic State of Idlib’ is under Al Qaeda occupation and they don’t have the standard of care that the rest of Syria does under the Ministry of Health in Damascus. Dr. Omar Hammoud, a doctor in Azaz, admits they have no plan for Syria’s northwest Idlib province. “If the virus spreads in the camps, controlling it would be very difficult, with the tents so close to each other,” Hammoud said. “There is no safe distance between people here, there is overpopulation.” The UK-based Islamic Relief charity said, “The conditions are ripe for an outbreak that we simply do not have the resources to handle.”

Within the Middle East, Iran has been worst hit with around 9,000 people infected and 354 deaths. Turkey by contrast, which borders northwest Syria and has forces stationed across the frontier, confirmed its first case on Wednesday. The worldwide death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surged past 5,000 on Saturday with the total number of cases rising to more than 140,000, as the infection continues to prompt countries to take unprecedented measures to help stave off a global health crisis.