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'We Are All Scared, All The Time': Syrian Doctors Can't Talk About The Coronavirus

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: According to officials, Syria has managed to avoid the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The government says some 100 people have died of COVID-19 in the country. The real picture is very different. Syrian health workers and aid groups say the disease is spreading through the country at an alarming rate, a fact that Syria's authoritarian regime would rather hide. NPR's Ruth Sherlock managed to reach one health worker who took the risk of being interviewed to sound the alarm.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The health worker asks me not to use his name, say his exact profession or where he even is in Syria. And he asks me to distort his voice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Anonymity is necessary, even just to talk to me about the coronavirus, he says, because in Syria's dictatorship, even this information is controlled.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) There are continuous warnings against doctors about speaking on this issue.

SHERLOCK: He tells me medical staff are so intimidated that they're wary even to talk about the virus with each other.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We are all scared all the time.

SHERLOCK: He thinks the regime worries that news of the sickness could prompt desertions from fighters in the civil war and anger an already destitute population. In the earlier months of the outbreak this past spring, the doctor says the regime tried to hide the effects of the pandemic by restricting which doctors could treat the sick.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They would intentionally choose specific people who were loyal to the authorities to enter these wards.

SHERLOCK: Now the virus is too widespread to hide. He says the ICUs in several hospitals in Damascus and other cities are full. Government quarantine centers for those suspected of having the disease are overcrowded, dirty and poorly equipped. He says some Syrians liken them to prisons and even avoid coming forward with the virus for fear of being sent to these places.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) There aren't enough supplies. There isn't even enough oxygen. They aren't even able to provide this. So people are dying.

SHERLOCK: NPR reached a mortician in Syria through an intermediary, who agreed with the doctor's assessment but was too afraid to go on tape. It's hard to know exactly how widespread the disease is because of the lack of official data. The World Health Organization representative in Damascus, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, said in a written answer to NPR that there isn't the testing capacity to know exactly how many cases there are. But she believes that there has been a steep rise.

In the capital Damascus, it seems as though everybody knows someone who has the disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARWAN MAHFOUZ: (Singing in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: The famous Lebanese singer Marwan Mahfouz died in July after this performance at the city's opera house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHFOUZ: (Singing in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: The editor of the country's state television channel was also reported among the victims. On Facebook, residents advise each other of hospitals outside of the capital that might still have room for the sick. Zaher Sahloul, who's based in Chicago and heads the charity MedGlobal, tells me it's terrible in Syria right now.

ZAHER SAHLOUL: Acceleration of cases, doubling every couple of days, high number of death and high number of hospitalization. And there's a huge panic and huge chaos.

SHERLOCK: And he's seeing more and more of his Syrian colleagues fall victim to the virus.

SAHLOUL: The last tally is 63 physicians, mostly in Damascus and Aleppo. But that list is increasing every day.

SHERLOCK: Sahloul says that with Syria already destroyed by a decade of war, many simply cannot afford to stay home or follow the guidelines that the government has tried to impose. They have to go out to earn a living, and so the virus continues to spread.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.