'We have nothing here but God's mercy': Syrian camps in fear as Covid-19 threatens disaster

Video report by ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine

The ravages of war have pinned more than a million people into a small wretched corner of Syria, where tents provide the only shelter.

The Assad regime has been a common enemy for these displaced people - and they have found some camaraderie in their shared predicament.

But now they fear they’re about to become their own worst enemy as coronavirus spreads among them.

It’s hard to imagine any more fertile ground for the virus than these camps in Syria.

“We all drink from the same tap of water, we all gather for food, we have no aid at all and we have to live in this camp,” Fatima Al Khaldi tells ITV News.

“Sometimes we separate the children but what can we do? We have to live in these conditions.

“Our situation is bad, no one cares. Every 20 families use one bathroom and they are not serviced but what can we do?"

She says three families live in one tent and urges someone, somewhere to bring tents.

“Give us better conditions, we have no nutrition and no cleanliness, bring us soap. A group of people contribute together so they can buy soap and we all use it together,” she said.

Mohammed Zaida has eleven children in his tent and fears that if just one of them gets infected, then inevitably they all will.

He thinks it will be like wildfire.

“If I get sick then the whole tent gets sick,” he said, adding his neighbor is just a metre away from his family.

Zoudeh Al-Muhammad and her family have been living in the camp for three years.

She relies on the pittance she makes by collecting rubbish, sifting through it and selling the plastic she finds.

The family’s meagre income has been cut because, while she used to get her children to help, she doesn’t anymore.

She’ll risk her own life doing this dirty work, but not theirs.

“If we don’t work how can we live, where can we work? look around we are living in a desert,” she said.

“If we were back home, we have land that we work and eat from, we have olive trees, here we have nothing but God’s mercy.”

In what passes for the health sector in the camps, the shortages are more fundamental than medicines or PPE – there’s an acute shortage of hospitals and doctors.

Almost a decade of war has led to the exodus of 70% of Syria’s health service professionals.

Of those who have stayed behind, more than 900 have been killed, mostly in air strikes.

What they are dealing with normally – afflictions like malnutrition – underline just how vulnerable the persecuted of Idlib really are to coronavirus, the next disaster.

Muhammad Al-Salem, a doctor in a hospital serving the camps, said there is just one ventilator for every 44,000 people.

The Head of Syrian American Medical Society, Dr Mufaddal Hamadeh, told us: “We expect the situation to progress rapidly to the worst in the next 2 weeks. It is terrifying knowing how bad it could become.”

More than a dozen doctors and nurses have recently tested positive for Covid-19 and, realistically, there doesn’t seem to be much to stop it spreading.

If they could be somewhere else they would. But here they have to stay, cheek by jowl; poorly nourished; living without much in the way of health care and just minimal sanitation.

When it comes to the means to fight coronavirus, you name it, they haven’t got it.

Dr Zaher Sahoul, president of international medical charity MedGlobal said: "There are fears in this area the whole healthcare system will collapse, especially if Covid cases continue amongst doctors.

"There is no way to replace these physicians. They cannot be brought in from elsewhere as these doctors here in Syria are already taking risks for years treating people in a conflict zone.

"Now they face the additional risks of Covid all whilst having little PPE etc."