SEATTLE, Washington — The Kurdish, also known as Kurds, are an ethnic group of about 35 million, spread across the Middle East. The Kurds mainly live in Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Iraq, and Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northeastern Syria, but also inhabit parts of Turkey and Iran. Already faced with challenges, the Kurds now have to face the added impact of COVID-19.
Kurdistan’s Response and Rojava’s Challenges
The Kurdistan Regional Government reported more than 3,500 cases of COVID-19, with 1,350 recoveries and only 98 deaths as of June 20. No accurate counts of COVID-19 cases were found for Rojava aside from an April 29 report confirming two cases.
Dindar Zebari, a Kurdistan Regional Government official, announced that the government spent more than $14 million fighting COVID-19. The region responded by declaring lockdowns as early as February, slowly lifting these measures starting June 6. Government offices and businesses closed and only essential services like pharmacies and bakeries remained open. Additionally, Kurdistan banned interprovincial travel and travel beyond regional borders. Only healthcare workers and members of the media were allowed to travel during the lockdown.
Kurdish officials decided to react to the impending threat of COVID-19 before having any confirmed cases, The proactive response was a key factor in curbing the spread of COVID-19.
The situation for the Kurds in Rojava is drastically different than the Kurds in Kurdistan. Rojava faces the consequences of nine years of war in Syria, in addition to the Turkish invasion. Turkish forces have attacked healthcare and water infrastructure in the region and it also faces embargos. According to a report from the Rojava Information Center, access to U.N. aid was limited in January 2020 and the World Health Organization (WHO) has not adequately facilitated and supported healthcare services in the region.
The State of COVID-19 in Kurdish Communities
“Kurdish communities are facing similar challenges to countries with limited resources”, Dr. Heval Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish cardiologist and co-founder of the Kurdish American Medical Association (KAMA), told The Borgen Project. Kurdistan and Rojava have shortages of testing and expertise, which puts people at risk of contracting the virus. Kelli stated that official reports of COVID-19 are not available because of the lack of testing in the region, which makes it difficult to get an appropriate estimate of the impact of the virus.
Kelli also stated that Kurdistan and Rojava were aggressive in implementing social distancing measures earlier than other countries. The governments focused on preventive measures because of limited resources and the Kurdish people followed the guidelines set forth.
COVID-19 testing is only available to severely sick, hospitalized, or critical patients. Like many other healthcare professionals, the pandemic is new to Kurdish medical leaders. Aside from testing issues, Kelli indicated that another issue faced is the public ignoring the severity of the virus as many Kurds are frustrated by stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols.
Combatting COVID-19 on the Ground
Kelli pointed to the Kurdish American Medical Association’s COVID-19 page. The website has information sheets, educational videos, public campaigns and community education sessions available in English, as well as Kurdish dialects, Kurmanji and Sorani. The page aims to raise awareness of COVID-19 to mitigate its effects.
The Kurdish Red Crescent, a nonprofit humanitarian organization, has focused its efforts in Rojava. The organization has established a specialized COVID-19 hospital in the region. Additionally, the organization provided more than 25,000 people with hygiene items such as soap, shampoo and towels. The organization has also delivered water tanks to a refugee camp and looks to address the specific needs of women during the pandemic.
While Kurds encounter a variety of challenges, COVID-19 is an added hurdle for both Kurdistan and Rojava. Some efforts have been taken to assist the Kurds of Kurdistan and Rojava during the COVID-19 pandemic but the areas are still critically in need of international assistance to amplify local efforts. The situation calls for global solidarity and cooperation as the world is only as strong as the weakest link in the global health system.
– Grethel Aguila