Syria reports first coronavirus death as fears grow that virus could spread
Syria's health ministry said on Sunday that a woman who died after being rushed to hospital for emergency treatment was found to have been infected by coronavirus in the country's first officially reported death from the disease.
Syria also said its confirmed cases rose to nine from an earlier five cases, but medics and witnesses say there are many more. Officials deny a cover-up but have imposed a lockdown and draconian measures including a nationwide night curfew to stem the pandemic.
The moves to shut businesses, schools, universities, mosques and most government offices, as well as stop public transport, have spread fear among war-weary residents.
Several cities saw panic buying, with residents saying they saw food shortages and a surge in demand that pushed up prices ahead of the start of the curfew.
The United Nations says the country is at high risk of a major outbreak because of a fragile health system devastated by a nine-year war and lack of sufficient equipment to detect the virus, alongside large numbers of vulnerable people.
The World Health Organisation has warned that the country has a limited capacity to deal with a rapid spread of the virus.
Syria's Idlib: A humanitarian disaster
The battle for Idlib is likely to be the last, bloody conflict in the Syrian war. Refugees are fleeing the city in droves. By Diana Hodali
On the run: traffic is heavy on the roads heading north through the Idlib region toward the Turkish border. Soldiers of the Assad regime are advancing from the south and east, aided by their Russian and Iranian allies. Some Syrian rebel groups are supported by Turkey, which also has soldiers of its own in the region. But ordinary people just want to reach safety
"The horror has multiplied": almost 1 million people have been displaced since December. According to UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, "the horror has multiplied" in the past two weeks. The front lines are closing in, triggering large movements of people in the space of just a few days. Assad wants to drive the civilian population out of Idlib province, and is moving to capture this last rebel stronghold
Bombed to pieces: Maaret al-Numan and the surrounding area has been particularly badly hit by the attacks. The city has been bombed to pieces and is practically deserted. The important M5 highway runs through here, from Damascus via Aleppo to the Turkish border. Most of those fleeing are trying to make it to Turkey – but the border is closed
Waiting at the border: around 100 people, including 35 children, died in bombings in the first half of February alone, according to the United Nations, which has spoken of the "blatant disregard for the life and safety of civilians." This family fled to the Turkish border months ago. They're living in the Kafr Lusin refugee camp, holding on to the hope that Turkey will eventually let them in
500,000 children in need: out of the almost 1 million people who have fled it's estimated that around half are children. Of the rest, the majority are women. There aren't enough shacks at the Turkish border to house them all, and many refugees are living in tents. Camps are often set up in haste and are severely overcrowded. People are sleeping in doorways and on pieces of cardboard, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures
Little food and medicine: those who have been able to find a tent usually share it with about a dozen family members. Medicine is running out in many of the camps, and basic food and clothing is also becoming scarce. Doctors on the ground report that many children are suffering from malnutrition, and some are even dying of starvation. The cold is also taking its toll, and some people have already frozen to death
Refuge in a school: many children in the region can no longer go to school, so some school buildings have been re-purposed. This school has been turned into a refugee shelter – sometimes, even the refugee camps are targeted in bombing raids
Trying to reach safety: the illegal route across the border to Turkey is costly; hardly anyone can afford it. Smugglers are charging people up to $2,000. Those who do make the attempt are risking their lives: Turkish border guards have thermal imaging cameras to help them spot people trying to cross. Sometimes they shoot at refugees who try to climb over the wall
Looking for dignity: the UN has said the situation in Idlib could be the greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. No one knows whether or not there will be a ceasefire. The refugees don't care who puts an end to the war; they just want a life of safety and dignity, for themselves and for their children. A four-way summit between Turkey, Russia, France and Germany, planned for 5 March, is now in jeopardy
On Sunday, the army announced an end to a call-up of army reserves. It has already ended conscription in what military defectors said was an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus among the rank and file.
The government also banned movement of people between governates. Security forces manned checkpoints around provincial cities and only allowed army vehicles and essential services to pass, witnesses said.
Opposition figures and independent politicians point to Damascus' strong ties with Iran, the worst affected country in the region, as a source of possible contagion. They say the virus is also being transmitted by members of Iranian-backed militias who are fighting alongside the Syrian army, as well as Shia pilgrims who visit shrines in Syria.
Western intelligence sources say Iran's proxy Shia militias continue to cross the Qaim border crossing between Iraq and Syria, where they have a strong presence across the country. Senior Syrian army officers have in recent days taken leave of absence and been ordered not to mingle with the Iranian-backed militias, military defectors say.
Syrian officials said Damascus airport has halted commercial flights, and the government has also ordered the closure of its main border crossings with neighbouring states.
Thousands of Shia pilgrims have been arriving in Syria to visit the Sayeda Zainab shrine in Damascus, a neighbourhood that also houses the main headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias.
Iraqi health officials confirmed on Sunday that returning Shia pilgrims from Syria have tested positive for the coronavirus, raising concern that such travel could be a source for a wider spread of the disease. (Reuters)