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World

Syria Confirms 1st Case Of COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Syria, having faced a war for years that has killed or displaced millions, now has announced its first case of coronavirus. Health care workers are preparing to fight a pandemic in one of the most challenging parts of the world. NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In camps in northern Syria, hundreds of thousands displaced by fighting live in squalor. One aid worker drove around a rainy camp and sent NPR a video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AHLAM: (Through interpreter) This is a situation of the people in the camps, may God help them - dirt and mud and frustration and displacement and tents.

FORDHAM: This is Ahlam, who works with the charity World Vision. She doesn't give her last name or exact location because she's afraid of the government. She drives down a dirt road with an endless backdrop of forlorn, wet tents.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AHLAM: (Through interpreter) And on top of everything, we're scared of coronavirus and we don't know what God has written for us.

FORDHAM: Social distancing and rigorous handwashing are all but impossible. There's already an outbreak of swine flu. In this opposition province, Idlib, medical facilities have been hit by government airstrikes, and most medical professionals have left Syria.

HEDINN HALLDORSSON: We are supporting partners, implementing partners on the ground. We have close to 300 functioning health facilities. It should be double that number, but this is the fact.

FORDHAM: Hedinn Halldorsson works with the WHO. Just a handful of tests have been done in Idlib. And as the results come in, the WHO is also trying to figure out how to treat cases.

HALLDORSSON: We are identifying ICUs, intensive care units, that can be used in case of contagion in Syria. We are identifying places where we can have some sort of community isolation.

FORDHAM: Meanwhile, in Damascus, the WHO has also supplied testing kits to the government, which is just beginning to use them. Social distancing measures have been announced, but recent state TV footage from Damascus showed people out shopping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: One woman says she has to buy necessities for her kids.

One other area of concern is the Kurdish-controlled northeast. Local officials there tell NPR they have no resources to test, their borders are sealed, and so far, they're not sure where to turn for help.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.