In the emergency room of a hospital in Damascus, an elderly woman sick with coronavirus waits for a bed in intensive care. In the Syrian capital, doctors are overwhelmed by the number of infections.
The patient, accompanied by her son, groans and breathes heavily on a bed, under a dim light. Oxygen was administered. In the room, the sick and their families are close to each other, a worrying proximity.
“There are many cases that need respirators [artificiales] or intensive care, “confirms Dr. Asmaa Sbayni, with two surgical masks on her face, a stethoscope and an oximeter around her neck.
“There are cases for which you can not do anything,” adds the 26-year-old doctor. “They die in front of us.”
In mid-March, intensive care units mobilized against the coronavirus in the Syrian capital recorded an occupancy rate of 100%, the Health ministry reported.
Some patients who needed intensive care had to be transferred to other provinces.
In the emergency room of Al Muwasat hospital, Sbayni records the data of a dozen patients he saw in a single day.
“Sometimes we receive more than 40 cases a day, it is more than we can treat,” he laments.
The authorities have been warning for weeks that infections are increasing and ask the population to respect health measures.
– Daily increase –
Officially, the areas controlled by Damascus (about two-thirds of the country at war) have registered 19,000 cases of covid-19, of which just over 1,200 fatal.
Doctors and United Nations organizations estimate that there are many more, especially because of the limited number of tests, notes the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Last year the government imposed restrictions on travel and the opening of shops, but was forced to lift the measures in a country mired in an economic crisis.
Al Muwasat Hospital is one of the main facilities mobilized in Damascus to fight the coronavirus.
In his office, its director Esam al Amin follows live on screens the situation in intensive care and in the isolation unit that has 70 beds. The phone doesn’t stop ringing.
“We have not yet reached the peak,” warns the doctor. “The numbers go up daily.”
Health establishments accept “only the most serious cases,” he explains. And “dozens of cases”, with milder symptoms, “are treated at home, after being treated by a specialist doctor.”
The official figures only reflect “the results of PCR tests carried out in hospitals and for travelers,” acknowledges the doctor.
“Syria is in a state of war and under siege,” he adds, referring to the sanctions. “It doesn’t have a lot of screening tests.”
– “Chance to survive” –
At the end of February, Damascus launched the vaccination of some 2,500 medical personnel thanks to the doses sent by “a friendly country”.
Through the Covax program, promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others for the poorest countries, government areas and the northeast (under Kurdish control) will initially receive 912,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The delivery was scheduled for April, but was delayed “at least until May,” the director of the WHO office for Syria, Akjemal Magtymova, told AFP.
A recent UN report recalled “the fragility of the Syrian health system and its lack of staff.”
Citing official statistics, the report shows 654 infections among medical personnel, including 29 deaths.
At Al Muwasat Hospital, sepsis doctor Ali Rostom is relieved to learn that a patient has left the intensive care unit. He asks the nurses to sterilize the bed to set up another sick person and guarantee him a “chance to survive.”
It has also seen “an explosion of cases.”
“Intensive care beds are never empty,” confirms his colleague Basam Quaider. “There are always people on the waiting lists.”
Instinctively, he lowers his voice when an ambulance arrives with its siren wailing. “The coronavirus is not to be taken lightly.”
mam / lar / tgg / sc / hj / erl / tjc