“I cannot tell my true name,” says Ramiz Halawani, a 37-year-old teacher in Damascus. “You know how bad and violent our security intelligence are. They have spies everywhere. So, I am using another name.”
Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Halawani said he contracted Covid-19 earlier this month, as the epidemic swept through the Syrian capital. “I have been sick with coronavirus infection for 10 days,” he said. “I got the infection from a colleague of mine at a summer school. After almost a week, I felt exhausted with fever and a dry cough. I thought it was just a flu, but as a precaution I told my wife and three children to stay with my parents-in-law.”
The next morning, Mr Halawani woke up with a sore throat and a bad headache. He knew some doctors and nurses at a clinic near where he lived and went there. He described his symptoms to them and they tested him, telling him to go home and quarantine himself while they waited for the results of the test. “The next day I called the doctor, who told me that I had tested positive,” says Mr Halawani. He was told not to try to go to a hospital because they were all full up and would not accept him as a patient.
The Syrian government has been playing down just how swiftly the disease is spreading. It has reported just 2,293 Covid-19 cases and 92 deaths, 52 of which in Damascus.
One nurse from a large hospital in Damascus told The Independent that the Syrian health ministry number for those infected is only 10 per cent of the true figure. The nurse said that the huge al-Mouwasat University Hospital, where he worked, was full up with patients, many of them sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
The number of people dying is likely to be much higher than the government admits. Mr Halawani said he lives close to a big cemetery and saw dozens of dead bodies being secretly buried there at night: “Three weeks ago, six small trucks, usually used in hospitals to transfer medicine and medical equipment, arrived in the cemetery at about 10pm.” They were accompanied by about 15 men in full PPE, two of them carrying Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
Out of curiosity, Mr Halawani walked to the fence around the cemetery where he “was shocked to see that they were taking dozens of dead bodies out of the trucks”. When some of his neighbours got close to the scene, one of the men with the bodies shouted that they should “move away so that the disease does not infect us”. Mr Halawani said he counted about 45 bodies, but believes the total figure to be over 60.
The 5 million population of Damascus are in a poor position to resist the spread of coronavirus. People are crammed into houses, often half a dozen families where there used to be one, because they have fled to the greater security of the Syrian capital during the last nine years of war. They have been impoverished by the conflict, with eight in 10 Syrians living below the poverty line according to the UN. This deprivation suddenly became much worse this summer after the Trump administration introduced the so-called Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, named after the Syrian photographer who documented thousands of people killed by the government. The act, which came into force on 17 June, reinforces tight economic sanctions against Syria that were already crushing the economy.
The new measures amount to a full economic blockade and have led to soaring prices, the near collapse of the Syrian currency, and shortages of food and other necessities. Though the ostensible purpose of the sanctions may be to protect ordinary Syrians from the regime, its real impact has been to make them even poorer, more malnourished and more vulnerable to coronavirus. Syrians in the street complain that they have to choose between buying masks and buying bread.
Mr Halawani is a little better off than many of those infected in Damascus, but he still finds the medicines he wants to buy very expensive. After the doctor told him that he had tested positive for coronavirus, he said: “I went to the pharmacy wearing gloves and a mask and bought some paracetamol, an antibiotic called Azithromycin, and vitamin C tablets.” He reckons that anybody who has coronavirus in Syria needs at least 25,000 Syrian pounds (£7.61), for the extra costs and points out that this is more than half the monthly income of many people. “This is why the number of deaths is increasing so dramatically,” he said. “People are not dying of the disease, but rather of poverty. It is not starvation [that is killing them], but lack of money to buy medicine.”
Syrians often do not want to admit they have coronavirus because they do not think anything can be done for them and they do not want to become social outcasts. Mr Halawani said there are dozens of cases of infection in his neighbourhood, but many are hiding it and will not go to a clinic or hospital. A neighbour of his was tired and coughing, but when Mr Halawani “asked him if he was infected, he said it was simply flu”. Later a nurse in the neighbourhood clinic confirmed to Mr Halawani that the man did indeed have coronavirus.
He himself soon discovered how easy it is to acquire pariah status when he openly admitted that he had the illness.
A week after he had first been diagnosed, he was having difficulty in breathing, chest pain and had lost his sense of taste and smell. His doctor told him to eat lots of fruit and vegetables, but this was not as easy as it sounds. “I had announced to my neighbours that I was infected and they should not shake hands with me,” he recalled. But his honesty only meant that when he went out to buy fruit from the nearby groceries, they refused to sell him anything.
“All the shopkeepers were shouting at me as soon as they saw me at a distance, though I was wearing a mask and gloves,” he said. He was forced to walk for an hour to shops in another district where he and his illness were not recognised. In his home district, even the minibuses would not take him because the drivers knew he was infected. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I know many people in the neighbourhood who are also infected but they hide it. They claim that it is just a flu and go shopping and get on a bus and nobody criticises them.”