In Syria, a Grim Trade-Off Between Tackling Pandemic and Famine

The pandemic-fueled food shortage in Syria suggests the worst is yet to come in other conflict-riven countries around the world.

The Syrian city of Idlib in March after the coroanvirus outbreak.
Members of a Syrian nonprofit group disinfect the streets of Syria's northwestern Idlib city as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus on March 21. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

Measures to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Syria are exacerbating the country’s mounting food shortages, U.N. officials and Syria-based aid workers told Foreign Policy, a trend that could plunge the country’s humanitarian crisis to new depths after almost a decade of conflict. 

The compounding crises offer a grim model for how the long-term effects of the pandemic could worsen the humanitarian situation in other conflict-riven regions, such as South Sudan, Yemen, and the Sahel, where governments and aid organizations may be faced with a trade-off of enacting lockdown measures that worsen food shortages or tackling food shortages while increasing the risk of more infections. 

To make matters worse, the global economic downturn from the coronavirus has already exacerbated food shortages worldwide. Already, international aid groups were predicting that 2020 would be one of the worst years on record for global food insecurity, thanks to a combination of climate change and conflict. After the outbreak of the pandemic, the World Food Program (WFP) nearly doubled the number of people it predicted would face acute hunger worldwide, from 135 million to 265 million. 

Syria is bearing the brunt of these interlinked crises. Over half the country’s total population of some 17 million is now classified as food insecure—with an increase of 1.4 million just since the start of the year, according to WFP. Another 2.2 million could potentially face food shortages, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told Foreign Policy. “The numbers in need are growing,” he said. 

The problems for Syria are several. There are ongoing difficulties with the simple production and distribution of food, with farming and agriculture—a pillar of Syria’s prewar economy—supply flows and imports all derailed by the conflict. Even when food lands on the shelves, Syrians have less and less money to spend on it. Both are hampered by coronavirus lockdowns. And Syria has also been hammered by years of climate change-induced droughts, including a massive one that may have helped kick off the uprising in the first place a decade ago. Then there’s the economic cataclysm in neighboring Lebanon, the main conduit for banking and dollars for Syria’s war-ravaged economy.

“There was already a perfect storm of climate change impacts and conflict that were making Syria one of the most food-insecure countries in the world,” said Caitlin Welsh, the director of the global food security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “COVID is making bad situations even worse.”

Rebel-held northwestern Syria is in most dire need of humanitarian assistance, where attacks from Russian-backed Syrian government forces displaced over half a million people this year. But the situation is also worsening in government-held areas, where people are now increasingly talking about the risks they face of going hungry, said Matt Hemsley, a Damascus-based policy and communications advisor at Oxfam, who says the lack of jobs and money is driving people to the brink.

“We have anecdotal reports that people are taking quite desperate measures. People talking to us, telling us they’re gathering, boiling, and eating weeds,” Lowcock said. “This is not what people do unless they’re desperate.”

The fundamental issue that the short-term fixes that could help Syria’s most vulnerable—more international food shipments, more visits to food distribution centers or markets, more interactions with aid workers—all require the sorts of travel and in-person interactions that health experts warn against to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That leaves humanitarian aid workers grappling with a grim trade-off: fight hunger or fight COVID-19.

For now, at least according to official data, the number of reported coronavirus cases and deaths in Syria remains low. The World Health Organization (WHO) has tracked 372 confirmed cases and 14 deaths in the country as of July 7. But a devastated health infrastructure, living conditions that make social distancing difficult, and a low rate of testing mean that number is likely far higher. The country’s weakened and overburdened health care infrastructure likely won’t be able to handle a wider outbreak: WHO estimates that more than half of Syria’s hospitals and health centers were taken out of action during the war. Syria has only about 1,400 adult hospital beds and 250 intensive care unit beds, according to data from the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a nonprofit group tracking the crisis in Syria. 

Last month, an international donor conference raised $5.5 billion from the United States, European Union, Germany, and other countries in humanitarian assistance for Syria in 2020 and $2.2 billion for crisis response in 2021. The United States pledged $696 million in new humanitarian assistance and is providing over $31 million to Syrians specifically to combat the coronavirus, according to Pooja Jhunjhunwala, the acting spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The new surge in funds offers a lifeline to Syrians caught between the conflict, pandemic, and food shortages. But Lowcock said that even with the increased fundraising for Syria, it may not be enough, given the looming COVID-19 crisis—even if aid could actually be delivered.

“Although we have our cross-border operation bringing food and medicines and other supplies in, the scale of the need is such that we can’t meet everybody’s basic needs through that program at the moment,” he said.

Other countries that have been much harder hit by the virus have thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at the problem in terms of ramped-up health care and massive economic stimulus. Syria, like other poor and conflict-riven countries, can’t afford any economic shots in the arm. That means there is likely a lot worse in store. 

“There’s an alarming prospect of a really, really bad situation in many countries in six months’ time,” Lowcock said. “There is a risk of multiple famines [and] big spikes in loss of life as health services deteriorate.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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