How COVID-19 Further Endangers War Victims by Dr. Betcy Jose

Published: April 16, 2020

Members of the Syrian Civil defence sanitize the Bab Al-Nour internally displaced persons camp, to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Azaz, Syria on 26 March.The COVID-19 pandemic has rightfully consumed the attention of people around the world. 

It is difficult to escape the reports of how various countries are trying to protect their populations from the dangerous SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Yet, in all this constant and breathless reporting, one highly vulnerable population seems to get lost in the mix: war victims. This blurb discusses some of the reasons war victims are in a particularly precarious situation by focusing on the Syrian war.

One reason COVID-19 acutely endangers Syrian war victims is because the war has obliterated their health infrastructure.

Various parties to the conflict have (and continue to do so) intentionally targeted hospitals and healthcare workers, a violation of the norms and laws of war. These war crimes imperil civilians in the best of times.  During a pandemic involving a highly contagious and fatal disease, they essentially amount to a death sentence.

Another significant concern with this pandemic is that the measures needed to keep populations safe are almost impossible for many Syrians to enact, especially Syrian refugees and those internally displaced. 

How are they to practice physical distancing and good hygiene trapped in crowded camps with insufficient access to clean water and little to no soap? Under these conditions, war victims have few options to protect themselves.

These problems are compounded by the final issue discussed here. 

As already suggested, Syrian war victims cannot rely on their government to take the kind of large scale action needed to protect them from this calamity in the way other governments have. Under-resourced humanitarian actors, the politically-hampered United Nations, and some individual countries have nobly tried to serve this role. But the COVID-19 pandemic has severely limited these efforts partially because of safety concerns and partially because some of these actors have become internally focused. Under these conditions, war victims sadly fall through the cracks.