By Kerri Barber and Remote Corespondent Nancy Roberts in Jordan

As Americans brace for what will be a long and trying time through the COVID19 crisis, our efforts overseas cannot be ignored. Our foreign policy and geopolitical decisions have consequences for others who are facing the same dire threat with additional hardships brought about by US interventionism and proxy wars. One such population are the Syrian refugees living in Jordan.  

The Real News Network covered the story on March 30, warning of massive unemployment risks across the Arab region. Prompted by a warning from the United Nations, reporter Kim Brown outlined the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on oil-rich nations facing “economic collapse” due to lower demand, which is contributing to an expected $42 billion loss  in GDP and “trillions of dollars lost to the private sector in an area already ravaged by inequality, dependency on oil revenue, and authoritarian governments”. 

Among those suffering the most are refugees.  

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(Photo: The Telegraph, Syrian refugees walk at Zaatari refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan.)

The World Food Program USA, a non-profit humanitarian organization, estimates that there are 6.2 million displaced Syrians, most of whom now reside in neighboring Jordan. Syrians now account for nearly ten percent of Jordan’s entire population. Over 670,000 Syrians are now registered as refugees with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.  

Jordan is reporting these numbers much higher with a total of 1.8 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, of whom 20 percent are living in the Za’atari, Marjeeb al-Fahood, Cyber City and Al-Azraq refugee camps. 

As part of Jordan’s relief efforts, many of these Syrians were granted work permits to help them provide for their families. Syrians over the age of 18 could apply for a permit if they had access to the registered identification and application. As of 2019, more than 100,000 permits were issued which granted them not only the right to work, but guaranteed a minimum wage, a day off with 14 days of paid sick leave, the right to overtime pay, the right to enroll in Social Security, and a maximum work week of 48 hours.  

Syrians were eager to work, as relief efforts were scarce and many international organizations were unable to reach remote camps along the border. Zaatari is the largest refugee camp in Jordan and dubbed the “fourth largest city” in the country, with 78,000 Syrians living there in temporary housing, and more than half of these residents under the age of eighteen.  

Many Syrians have been there since 2012, at which time skirmishes in Syria following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising sparked a civil war in Syria with protestors calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad. International interests stepped in, creating a proxy war with the United States-led coalition conducting air strikes against ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria, and Russia carrying out air strikes in support of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian Arab Republic since 2014. Caught among empire-building superpowers are the Syrian people themselves.  

At home in Syria, the war continues, but now the arrival of COVID19 has added hardship which are now being felt in the country’s capital. Last week Syrian news reported on the effects of the virus in Damascus, where public markets were closed. Residents there said that never in all the years of the civil war had they struggled in the way they are now due to the effects today of the virus on their daily lives.  

The BBC Arabic desk reported on the response to COVID19 by international relief organizations saying:

“Many Arab countries have imposed procedures interrupting business activities in order to limit the spread of the virus… In Jordan, for example, the closure was extended to become a complete curfew, which involved the closing of all businesses whatsoever, including bakeries. The same occurred in Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait and Lebanon.” 

The report also highlights the severe impact of curfews and closures on eighty percent of entrepreneurs across the Middle East region according to the Arab Monetary Fund. Add to this the many unskilled laborers who rely on their pay to survive and have taken to social media to post their frustration saying that they would rather contract the contagion and even die than be without work. 

This reaction is understandable considering that government response has been slow, and in some cases, nonexistent, when it comes to relief packages. BBC reports: 

“Assistance has instead been limited to procedural measures. Egypt, for example, has decided to disburse pensions early and to facilitate access to them, and to grant a grace period for repaying microloans. 

In Morocco, the government has led a fund-raising campaign on behalf of the poor and those who have lost their jobs as a result of the recent crisis. As for Jordan, it has promised to facilitate poor sectors’ access to bread and other basic commodities.” 

This leaves Syrian refugees in Jordan with even less. Now they are in quarantine together without access to work and packed into cramped refugee camps.  

Jordan closed its borders on March 17, the same day it reported 123 cases of COVID-19, most of whom had just returned from travel abroad. Contributor Conor de Lion wrote for Market Watch after returning to London from Jordan on March 25: 

“Jordan’s hospitality stretches far beyond a welcome for tourists and an embrace for expats. This is a nation that has given sanctuary to the refugees of a region’s bitter conflicts for more than 70 years. In a country of around 10 million, there are some 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees and 1.3 million Syrians — all this in a country that is slightly smaller than the state of Maine, with an acute water shortage and no oil. Do the math to scale those percentages for your own nation.” 

The dramatic steps taken in early March seem to have stemmed the tide in Jordan. Curfews are strictly enforced from 6:00 pm to 10:00 am with residents only permitted to shop locally and no travel permitted by car except for those with essential service permits; all public meetings, including funerals, church and prayer services, are prohibited. 

On March 3, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations announced a new relief package of $108 million for Syrians affected by the civil war. The U.S. joined other nations in calling for a cease fire, just as the true threat of COVID-19 rose in public awareness. Today, fighting continues in areas across Syria, hampering relief efforts for citizens there. Meanwhile refugees are facing the threat of wide-spread transmission through close quarters and multi-generational living arrangements.  

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock,  recommended easing sanctions in Syria during a March 30 briefing:  

“…Efforts to prevent, detect and respond to COVID-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system, by high levels of population movement, challenges to obtaining critical supplies, including protective equipment and ventilators, and the practical difficulties of implementing isolation and protective measures in areas of displacement, with high population density and low levels of sanitation services. 

“I reiterate the Secretary General’s appeal for the waiving of sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic.” 

We are aware of the under-reporting globally of active cases and related deaths due to lack of adequate testing and hospital bed shortages. Many related deaths occur at home and point to contributing chronic health issues like heart disease and asthma which exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19 infections.

This is true for wealthy countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. It is also true for a country like Syria and a smaller nation like Jordan. Death tolls will be far higher than the official reported numbers in these areas and among those who could least afford yet another humanitarian crisis.  

RELATED: Karen Abuzayd, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, recorded the video below on the effects of COVID-19 in Syria.