A COVID-19 outbreak in Syria could have devastating consequences for the war-torn country, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Officials are particularly concerned about the situation in the northwest. Vicious fighting there has replaced almost a million people. The survivors live together in huddled masses without food or basic utilities. That stressful and dangerous situation is the ideal breeding ground for an infectious disease. Furthermore, “Health preparedness and response in the country is considered low. Only half of public hospitals and public primary healthcare centers were fully functional at the end of 2019. Thousands of health professionals have also left the country,” observed UN spokesperson Jens Laerke. Currently, there are five reported COVID-19 cases in Syria, and the available information is spotty at best.
The UN is also concerned about the situation in Libya, which is also in the midst of a civil war.
Syria: How We Got Here
Bashar Assad has been Syria’s strongman since 2000. He took over for his late father, Hafez Assad, who assumed power in 1971. The younger Assad survived the Arab Spring of the early 2010s. Pro-democracy protesters deposed dictators throughout the Arab world. Assad stayed in power, but the country soon became embroiled in a civil war.
The roots of this civil war go back almost a century, to the 1917 Sykes-Picot agreement. Great Britain and France secretly divided the decaying Ottoman Empire’s Arabian territory between themselves. These two men drew an arbitrary line “from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” France received a sphere of influence to the north, and the English received a free hand to the south. The divisions are still apparent today. What later became Syria essentially straddled that line.
As the war escalated in the late 2010s, Russia dispatched mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner Group to prop up the Assad family, a traditional Moscow ally. American servicemembers and private military contractors supported various rebel groups.
Apropos of nothing, there is a big difference between contractors and mercenaries, but that discussion really is not relevant here.
For a time, it looked like the local conflict might expand into a world war. That is rather ironic, since World War I, which prompted the aforementioned Sykes-Picot agreement, began and expanded in that same way.
The current civil war, which has killed over 370,000 people and created millions of refugees, is now in its 10th year. Supposedly, the two sides were to sit down in the spring of 2020 and smoke the peace pipe. But those plans are now on hold indefinitely, as fighting continues and a new enemy might be creeping over the horizon.
Infectious Diseases and Armed Conflict
Until the 20th century, wartime diseases killed more soldiers than armed action. The Civil War killed about 2% of the population. In today’s terms, that is about six million deaths. According to some scholars, the death toll was much higher than 2%. Diseases, mostly malaria, dysentery, typhoid, and pneumonia, accounted for about two-thirds of these deaths.
Union soldiers from the Northeast unaccustomed to the climate in the south were easy prey for malaria. Dysentery is a digestive disease commonly associated with poor sanitary facilities. These conditions were the norm for both sides during much of the war. Typhoid, much like COVID-19, is a respiratory disease that is incredibly contagious and incredibly deadly in many cases. Pneumonia was the most common hospital infection in a conflict where such infections were rampant.
These diseases are not a problem in Southwest Asia, but others have taken their places. Doctors are still trying to unlock the mystery of the cryptic condition known as Gulf War Syndrome. About a third of Persian Gulf War veterans suffer with this condition, which is probably linked to toxic exposure. Burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan afflict many soldiers and contractors with similar symptoms and problems.
Coronavirus is usually not that serious among young, healthy people, but there are exceptions. Additionally, many contractors in Syria are recovering from battlefield wounds or other illnesses. They are far from healthy.
Coronavirus and Contractors
If contractors contract COVID-19 while they are overseas, does the Defense Base Act protect them? In most cases, the answer is yes.
Stateside coronavirus victims might have legal options. Several lawsuits have already been filed. Unfortunately, direct causation is an element of both workers’ compensation and personal injury claims. It is difficult to link an infectious disease to a specific place. Doctors can usually identify about a 12-hour infection window. But most people go lots of places during these time periods.
However, the Defense Base Act is different. Victims need only establish a nexus between their occupational disease and their overseas deployment. Assume a contractor is in a market during her off-hours when a terrorist bomb goes off. She was not on the clock and her presence in the market probably had nothing to do with her contractor position. Nevertheless, compensation is probably available, as outlined below. The same principle applies to infectious diseases like COVID-19.
If a contractor brings the disease home and infects someone, the DBA probably does not apply. The nexus element might be present, but the DBA only covers overseas injuries.
While they recover from their injuries, contractors are usually entitled to two-thirds of their average weekly wage. Additionally, DBA insurance pays most reasonably necessary medical bills, from the first day of emergency care to the last day of physical therapy.
Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. to learn more about DBA procedure.