This article is published as part of the Salon Syria Roundtable: War on Corona: A New Fateful Battle for the Syrians
Despite procedures taken by the government to tackle the Corona virus outbreak like closure of schools and universities; suspension of work for most official employees; cessation of public transport; closure of restaurants, cafés, and commercial shops; nighttime curfew; and a ban on transportation between governorates, and despite a statement by the United Nations saying that the situation in Syria could be catastrophic and the increase of infected cases to ten, including two deaths, many people in Damascus do not care about all of that, as streets in the daytime are full of pedestrians, honking cars, and calls of street vendors.
When I looked out of my balcony and saw all these people moving about in the streets, I asked myself “aren’t these people afraid for their lives? Doesn’t the Corona virus scare them? Why don’t they quarantine themselves in their homes just like most of the people around the world?” The answer then came to me from their exhausted faces and weary footsteps. Simply put, they are like no other people in the world. They resemble no one except for their country, which has suffered from the epidemic of war, besieging them for nine years and forcing them to experience countless forms of death.
The Poor Do Not Even Have the Option to Be Afraid of Corona
At seven in the morning, Abu Abdullah sweeps the street in front of a few grocery stores, which were exempt from the closure decision, he then carries the trash to a cart using his hands. He does not use a mask or gloves, for he does not give attention to the epidemic. “We have been playing with death for nine years. We escaped it more than once. I do not think God Almighty will kill us with an invisible virus,” he said.
Abu Abdullah is not an employee of the municipality. He performs these tasks in exchange for some money from the owners of these shops, in addition to vegetable and fruit leftovers and dry bread, which they give him for free.
Not far from Abu Ahmad and in front of a kiosk that sells government subsidized bread, dozens of people gather in a gruesome crowd. A quick glance reveals that most of them are poor and destitute. I stopped a woman who has just come out of the crowd as she angerly removed her scarf off her faces, which she was using as an alternative for a mask and asked her if she feared being present in crowded places. “If I could buy normal [unsubsidized] bread, I wouldn’t come here. The price of a bundle of that bread is seven hundred Syrian pounds, which is enough to cover the cost of an entire meal for me and my family. We, the poor, are prohibited from being afraid of the epidemic,” she replied.
Adnan, a child working as a delivery boy for a supermarket, is also fearless of the Corona virus. He wears his mask and carries on with his work with a smile on his face. He climbs the stairs of dozens of buildings carrying the orders of customers who chose to stay at home for fear of their safety. This is a choice that Adnan and his brother, who works in a similar job, cannot have because they are the only breadwinners of their displaced family suffering from grave living conditions.
Behind a small cart selling strawberries and green almonds stands Abu Ghassan wearing a mask and gloves and shouting out for his few goods. He is convinced of the importance and necessity of the quarantine, but he cannot do it himself. “I wish I could stay at home and relax from the epidemic nightmare that daunts upon me while I am working. I must deal with dozens of customers every day. However, if I stay at home, I might survive the Corona virus, but I will not survive the hunger,” he said.
With the start of the Stay at Home campaign and the nighttime curfew a few days ago, and in a dramatic scene, most roasteries I passed by were packed with customers buying enough supplies of nuts and salty treats to last them for days or even weeks in preparation for the home quarantine. Outside one of these roasteries stood an old man begging pedestrians and customers walking out with their bags, “help me, may God keep Corona away from you,” he was saying. A few meters away, a child was lying on the sidewalk wearing worn-out clothes with no care in the world about this epidemic.
Corona Threatens the Livelihood of the Poor
In one of the squares in the city of Jaramana, Abu Shaker, a taxi driver, waits for more than two hours for passengers, who have become almost non-existent, to get into his car, which he sterilizes a number of times every day. “Our work suffered after the decision to close restaurants, markets, and commercial shops. People’s movement was paralyzed to a great extent. Fear also found its way to their hearts and they are now afraid to take a taxi because they are concerned of getting infected with the virus,” said Abu Shaker. “I have to pay a monthly installment for the owner of the taxi in exchange for using it. Because of the nighttime curfew, my work hours decreased, and I am unable to pay the installment,” he added.
Several men, working as porters of furniture and construction material, gather in another square. Their eyes, filled with sorrow and pain, stare in all directions in search of someone who might require their work.
One of these men, Abu Yaser, tells me about their work during the Corona crisis, “a couple of days ago, I carried four sandbags and two cement bags to an apartment on the fifth floor for three thousand Syrian pounds. This was the last job I did. I was lucky compared to other porters who have not done much work for several days.” He then went on to say, “our work provides for our livelihood day by day. We are now at risk of losing our jobs, as people will no longer need our service in such conditions.”
At noon, a popcorn trolley is blaring a famous folklore popcorn song but there are no kids gathering around it as its owner was accustomed to. “In the past I used to sell a lot. Especially when children came out of schools. After the Corona crisis, my sales have dropped seventy per cent because children are no longer going out of their homes as much as they used to. I fear that the situation might get worse, then I would have to stop this work, which is my only source of income,” said the trolly’s owner.
Only the Poor Are Paying the Price for the Preventative Measures
Due to the closure decisions and the cessation of public transport, thousands of people lost their jobs and are now threatened by a daunting and frightening future, especially those who do not have any other source of income or some form of support they can resort to.
Shadi did not get the chance to celebrate his new café as he had to close it one week after opening it. “I spent two months preparing for the opening. I prepared the place and put a lot of effort in the decorations. I had to borrow a million Syrian pounds. Most of the equipment I got for the café have not been paid for yet,” Shadi said. “What can I do now to make up for my loss? How can I pay the rent? I fear the closure and curfew will go on for a long time because in that case I might die of sorrow rather than Corona,” he added.
Abu Omar, a bus driver, told me about the implications of his stopping work, “the bus used to provide work for three drivers, thus, three families were being supported. During the past few days, our income decreased by more than a half. The decision to stop all public transportation deprived our families from income and we are now threatened with necessity. Had it been not for the financial aid my siblings have provided, I would have actually starved.”
Mohannad, who used to work as a waiter in a restaurant, is also suffering. “I understand the importance of the closure decision in preserving public safety. However, will the restaurant owner give me any compensation to help me secure my daily livelihood? Will my landlord relieve me of paying rent? Will I find someone who can provide medicine for my sick mother who suffers from hypertension and diabetes?”
Preventative Measures Cost a Lot
An ounce of preventions is worth a pound of cure. Despite the importance of this adage, it is not suitable for many people in Syria. Prevention requires a lot of money. Due to the greed of the crisis dealers, the price of a mask reached seven hundred Syrian pounds, which is also the price for a small bottle of rubbing alcohol. The outrageous increase in prices also affected soap and cleaning materials, adding an additional burden on people who barely can provide their daily bread. In a saddening paradox, Abu Ghassan (the strawberry and green almond seller) paid his full daily labor to buy the mask, gloves, and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol.
Reinforcing the immune system requires various healthy foods, in addition to psychological comfort and avoiding stress. However, most people cannot enjoy these luxuries as the prices of fruits and vegetable skyrocketed. For example, the price of bananas, apples, and onions reached one thousand Syrian pounds for one kilogram, and the price of a kilogram of lemon or green pepper, which are high in vitamin C, surpassed one thousand six hundred Syrian pounds. Buying meat has turned into an unattainable dream.
Perhaps the man I met at the grocery store says it best. After he was intent on buying two kilograms of lemons and onions, he angrily stopped when he learned their prices. He eventually bought two onions and two lemons and sarcastically said, “they give advice to strengthen our immunity system! Do we strengthen it by eating bread, lentil, and bulgur? The poverty, pain, and deprivation we are experiencing will surely destroy all parts of our bodies. It seems that there is no savior for us other than Divine Providence.”
When I asked a butcher about how his business fairing, he answered with a sigh, “most customers are just buying one or two hundred grams of meat. Some people are buying the bones and putting them with the soup to give it the flavor of meat. People are barely able to buy bread and cheap vegetables.”
As the time for the night curfew sets, a sudden silence prevails. People then experience another form of suffering inside their homes that lack most entertainment gadgets and the most basic necessities of life as a result of previous crises, for example, the shortage in cooking gas, long hours of electric blackouts, and deteriorating internet services which hinders electronic communications, the only outlet available for people.
I stare at the dark windows of the houses and I think about their residents. What are they doing? What does the future hold for them? Will they be able to sleep with all these nightmares they are experiencing while they are asleep or awake?