Syrian Civil Defence on difficult mission to confront COVID-19 pandemic in northern Syria

Syrian Civil Defence volunteers in full protective suits and masks carrying the body of a deceased person with COVID-19 infection 16 October 2020 (Syrian Civil Defence)

Syrian Civil Defence volunteers in full protective suits and masks carrying the body of a deceased person with COVID-19 infection 16 October 2020 (Syrian Civil Defence)


Enab Baladi – Khawla Hefzy

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) volunteers, popularly known as White Helmets, work in the first line of contact with patients and victims of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in large parts of northern Syria.

With the increasing number of coronavirus patients and victims in northern Syria, the SCD task seems not easy, especially as they have to rescue victims of bombings and airstrikes, which have returned to northern Syria, in addition to other tasks. 

Enab Baladi contacted SCD elements working in northern Syria to find out their tasks in dealing with the patients and victims of the coronavirus disease and the working mechanism, especially since they also have families, implying additional responsibility.

Filled with feelings 

Yahya al-Qabalawi, an SCD volunteer, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that when transferring a victim during his work in the center of al-Bab in rural Aleppo, northern Syria,  he has a feeling of grief and sadness.  

Al-Qabalawi added, “Everyone feels sad when somebody dies. But the succession of scenes of dead body parts during wartime makes these feelings stronger among the SCD elements.”

Al-Qabalawi of twenty years old elaborated, “ When I start burying the dead underground, I wish I could go back in time and change the past. Maybe I would remind them of the importance of protecting themselves from the COVID-19 infection by implementing preventive measures. I would tell them to pay heed to the lethality of the pandemic, which took their innocent lives.” 

Al-Qabalawi added, “I feel worried and nervous, starting from receiving the body until burying and throwing dirt over it. I am afraid of transmitting the infection to my old parents, whom I live with at the same house because I am in constant complete contact with the coronavirus victims during the burial process. We transferred and buried the bodies of the deceased persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.”

 Al-Qabalawi spoke of taking “full precautions” when going back home, such as washing all his clothes, taking a full shower after transporting bodies, and burning burial clothes. 

Despite these measures, al-Qabalawi highlighted that he is still terrified, talking about the procedures followed if any symptoms appear, “When we feel unwell, we take a swab directly, isolate ourselves and do not go home, for fear that we have been infected with the disease.”

Fear of death

Hussam Muderati, an SCD volunteer, and his colleagues at the center of “Billion” in Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib, live in  “a tough situation and have a mixed bag of contradictory feelings every day” when dealing with patients and victims of the coronavirus disease.

Muderati explained that “ The coronavirus disease is no less dangerous than bombings and airstrikes, but it is more dangerous, given the possibility of infection being transmitted to us as people working on the ground and in direct contact with patients.”

Regarding the burial of coronavirus victims’ bodies in northern Syria, Muderati said, “There are many leading causes of death. But eventually, death is death, and everyone fears death. However, in my previous work within emergency and evacuation rescue teams, I passed that stage since I saw numerous cases of the deliberate targeting of civilians, human body parts, especially the victims of the massacres.”

Saying goodbye is banned in time of coronavirus 

The Syrian Civil Defence’s instruction requires that the patients and the bodies of deceased persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should not be approached except for the SCD elements wearing personal protective suits and face masks, which puts the SCD volunteers in “dramatic situations,” Yahya al-Qabalawi said. 

Al-Qabalawi added that he dealt with the body of a 50-year-old woman who died from COVID-19. She was a mother of young boys and girls; her children, especially her daughters, begged the SCD elements to let them bid farewell to their dead mother, saying, “ Let us catch the virus, but we want to say goodbye to our mother in the coffin.” At the moment, everyone started to cry, even the SCD members, “due to the horror and difficulty of the situation.”

And about the burial operations, volunteer Yahya al-Qabalawi indicated, “After the medical authorities inform us about the death of a person, we bring the body to the burial site.” He added that burial operations ramp up in the last month in the city of al-Bab; SCD elements bury an average of “five cases of infected or suspected coronavirus infection per day.”

Redoubled prevention measures

The daily interactions with the patients or victims of the coronavirus pandemic affect the daily life of the SCD volunteers while dealing with their families and relatives inside the home. 

Khaled karzeh, an SCD volunteer at the center of al-Bab and a father of three children, told Enab Baladi, “ When I am home, I try not to negatively impact my parents, my wife and children due to my work with many coronavirus cases. I also do my best not to stir up feelings of fear and concerns that I may have the disease, and I might infect them. I do not want my family members to avoid dealing with me. Therefore, I take all precautions to protect my children from the coronavirus infection and in order not to stay away from me.”

He added, “My children have face masks, and I try to alert and inform them about the coronavirus. Because I constantly work with the dead bodies of persons confirmed or suspected of being infected with COVID-19, I fear more for my family members’ lives. Cleaning and disinfecting my home against COVID-19  is at the highest level.”

Specialized cemeteries and burial team to handle COVID 19 deaths

The SCD takes preventive measures to bury coronavirus victims, confirming that there was “an awareness-raising activity intended for the specialized teams in the SCD, about the coronavirus infection, its risks, transmission modes, prevention methods, and how to wear personal protective equipment properly.”

The SCD’s media office indicated to Enab Baladi that after the specialized SCD teams were informed about the coronavirus and its impacts, they started training to deal with the coronavirus dead bodies in conjunction with joint training between health directorates and funeral homes and services.

The SCD’s media office denied that there are difficulties in light of the available coronavirus precautions, protective clothes, and well-trained teams. The office added that there is no specific number of coronavirus burial teams, but in every “SCD” center,  there is a team to handle coronavirus deaths. Besides, there are 32 centers dedicated directly to responding to the coronavirus cases, whether during the transfer of the COVID-19 patients or victims, their burial, or the like.

The media office added that the SDF team in every center takes all precautionary measures such as wearing personal protective equipment and others, in coordination with the health directorates when they bury all coronavirus victims’ bodies. 

Many places are available to bury coronavirus victims’ bodies in several areas, and “ even in areas where there are no burial places for the bodies of COVID-19 patients, we take full measures in terms of the grave depth and method of burial to avoid any potential effects,” according to the media office.

Training held before coronavirus spread in northern Syria

Training programs were held about the coronavirus disease, its threats, and its prevention procedures before the coronavirus hit northern Syria. Furthermore, the SCD teams started applying the precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease and provide people with detailed information about the disease on 18 March, while the first case of coronavirus was recorded on 9 July. 

The training to deal with the coronavirus included all volunteers, focusing on emergency response teams in the 32 centers distributed over northern Syria.

The SCD stressed that it is constantly following developments related to the virus and the ways of its spread and prevention, “to be fully informed of developments and transmit them immediately to the volunteers who have become one of the most important sources of awareness for civilians in northern Syria about the virus.”


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