Busy Damascus cemetery points to higher pandemic death toll in Syria

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The sprawling Najha cemetery outside Damascus, resting place for thousands of dead from Syria’s wars, is struggling to cope with a surge in victims from the country’s latest conflict – the largely unacknowledged battle with COVID-19. Official data put the national death toll from the pandemic at 209, but throughout the summer burial notices were posted on city walls and social media almost daily as professional groups mourned lost doctors, academics, lawyers and politicians.

Najha cemetery, the designated site for COVID-19 victims in the Syrian capital, usually handles around 40 burials a day.

That number more than tripled during most of July and there was a spike in August, and the numbers remain well above average, said Abdul Rahim Badir, who issues burial certificates at Najha.

While there are no independent figures for the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths in Syria, Badir’s account chimes with reports from some NGOs and aid workers who say the official data reflect a small fraction of the real toll.

Senior government health officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment on the discrepancies. The Syrian information ministry did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

In 30 years of work, Badir said he had never seen such a surge in burials. Some ceremonies have been held at night to avoid bodies piling up.

“We are already digging a mass grave that could bury thousands,” he said.

Syria’s health system, shattered by a nine-year war and lacking equipment to detect the virus, combined with millions of people made vulnerable by impoverishment and displacement, makes it highly susceptible to the pandemic.

Yet it has reported only a fraction of the cases registered by its neighbours, some of them suffering a spike in infections.

The World Health Organization, which did not challenge government statistics in the early months of the pandemic, said recently that Syria’s limited testing capabilities hid the scale of the crisis – particularly around the capital.

 

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