At Standstill Over Virus, Damascus Dreads New Silent Foe
Damascus, (UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News - 27th Mar, 2020 ) :On a deserted street in the old city of Damascus, the new coronavirus has forced salesmen like Ahmad to close up shop indefinitely for the first time in Syria's war.
"We've lived through some tough times during the war," says the 59-year-old, sitting on a chair on the pavement outside his textiles shop.
But "never in my life have I seen the markets and shops close for days on end like now".
All around him, businesses have pulled down their metal blinds or covered up their stands.
In the century-old covered bazaar of Hamidiya, workers in orange jumpsuits and face masks spray down wooden doors bolted shut with padlocks.
Ahmad this week called in his employees to give them their monthly wages and ask them all to go home.
The shopkeeper says he's never known anything like it. Even as rockets rained down during the conflict, the shops would not remain shut for long, he says.
"I don't know how we're going to live without work," lamented the tradesman, who supports a family of four including himself.
Eighty percent of Syrians already live under the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
It has also ravaged the economy and laid waste to much of the country's infrastructure, including the health sector.
Schools and universities have closed, as have parks, restaurants, coffee shops and other non-essential businesses.
"At the end of 2011, I felt we were heading into the unknown," Ahmad says.
But today, "we might be heading into a war of a different kind," Ahmad says, against a "hidden enemy".
In another neighbourhood, the city's world-renowned Omayyad Mosque has for the first time in years closed its gates.
Nearby, shops have also slammed their wooden shutters closed in Hamidiya market.
Apart from the men in jumpsuits spraying shutters with watered-down disinfectant, barely a handful of people walk through.
Among them, engineering student Mustafa is on his way to a pharmacy to stock up on supplies.
Wearing a pale blue surgical mask and plastic gloves, the 24-year-old surveys the empty street.
For years, "Damascus bustled on energetically -- despite the death, the shelling and the stray bullets," he says.
"But today with the coronavirus, the city is completely paralysed." - Consultations via phone app - Mustafa was supposed to graduate this year, but with lectures now suspended he is not so sure.
"When the decision came out to close all universities, I realised we were really in danger," he says.
"Corona is more than our healthcare capacities can take." The World Health Organization reports that barely 60 percent of the country's hospitals were functioning at the end of last year, and that 70 percent of health workers have fled the country.
Tho doctors who are left are doing their best to make up for the shortfall.
One of them, Dr Hussein Najjar, 37, has gathered fellow medical practitioners and scientists to dispense advice via a smartphone application.
The app, whose name translates as "Doctor's stethoscope", allows users to consult the experts directly with questions about the virus.
The idea, Najjar says, is to reach as many people as possible.
But he says this fight will likely be tougher.
"The enemy this time is unknown. It attacks silently," he says.
"The battle with the coronavirus will be an all-out battle," he says. "We have no choice."