• Omar Imady

In Came Corona: Nonsense and the Absurd in Syria's unfolding tragedy

Photo by REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Back in the 1980s, when I was a student at Macalester College, I remember I once took a course entitled: Nonsense and the Absurd in Russian Political Discourse. I haven’t thought of this course or of the Czechoslovakian professor who taught it in years; but when I came across an interview with Syria’s Minister of Health, Dr. Nizar Yazigi, I suddenly felt that I was back in that classroom reading excerpts of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose!

Lest you think that this is a grand exaggeration, this is a verbatim quote of Yazigi’s message to all Syrians who are concerned about the coronavirus pandemic:

“Praise be to God, the Syrian Arab army has purified much of the microbes which existed on Syrian territory, and we, as a medical sector and a medical army, are very grateful to the army for what it has achieved.”

The microbization of Syria’s political opponents was not invented by Yazigi. This sophisticated simile was first introduced by the Syrian president in a speech in 2012:

“Conspiracies are like germs, after all, multiplying every moment, everywhere. They cannot be eliminated, but we can strengthen the immunity of our bodies in order to protect ourselves against them.”

Approaching the coronavirus with the mindset of war, microbes and conspiracies unleashes yet another wave of absurd imagery. I imagine barrel bombs thrown over villages where corona cases are confirmed; patients tortured to confess that they are agents of a biological war against Syria, and besieging areas where the coronavirus has been detected and proceeding to bar all food and medical supplies from entering these areas so as to ensure the thorough ‘purification’ of Syria from this new enemy.

Underneath Syria’s surreal political discourse are tragic realities that continue to be normalised and ignored by the world. The Syrian regime is no doubt taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to ask for sanctions to be lifted for its own vested interests. Regardless, Syrians have and continue to suffer as a result of these sanctions, and the coronavirus pandemic is bound to make their suffering even worse.

A March 2020 update by WFP reminds us that 11.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance; 6.1 million people are internally displaced; 7.9 million people are food insecure; and 1.9 million people are at risk of food insecurity. A 2019 WHO report confirms outbreaks “ of measles, acute bloody diarrhoea, typhoid fever and leishmaniasis … in various areas of the country throughout the year.” The report also states that 10.2 million Syrians live in areas effected by explosive hazards . Perhaps most striking is the fact that attacks on health facilities “ have rendered 46 per cent of hospitals and primary health facilities in Syria as either partially functional or not functional, while in some areas humanitarian partners have been unable to secure sustained and predictable access to populations in need .”

Notwithstanding these critical indicators, all one really has to do to capture the gravity of the current situation is reflect on the contrast: If Western officials can be seriously concerned about the collapse of their healthcare systems as a result of this crisis, how does one expect a country like Syria, where so many hospitals were destroyed, and where medical equipment and supplies were not able to address the medical needs of its citizens long before the coronavirus was even heard of, to have even a remote chance of protecting vulnerable citizens from the effects of this pandemic?

Imagining what this pandemic would do to Syrians living in crowded camps, and damaged neighbourhoods, with some estimates of deaths already in the hundreds of thousands, is perhaps the most surreal part of this entire subject.

In my mind at least, the lesson here is profoundly simple: Syria’s tragedy should never have been ignored or normalised by the international community. Tragedies on this scale only get worse, and the arrival of the coronavirus in Syria provides ample proof of this reality. There is, now more than ever, a moral responsibility to protect Syria’s already vulnerable population, who are now likely to be the victims of a vicious virus unless adequate medical assistance is urgently provided. Failing to do so is to only add material to the syllabus of The Nonsense and the Absurd.

*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


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