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UN: Syria coronavirus cases just ‘the tip of the iceberg’

March 31, 2020 at 4:31 pm

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) disinfect tents inhabited by families as a preventive measure against coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in Idlib, Syria on 24 March 2020 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

The head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) issued a warning yesterday that the low number of coronavirus cases recorded in Syria are merely “the tip of the iceberg”. The country, warned Mark Lowcock, can expect “a devastating impact.”

“All efforts to prevent, detect and respond to Covid-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system,” Lowcock told the UN Security Council. He added that Syria is largely unprepared for the impact and that by the end of 2019, only around half of its health care facilities and hospitals were actually fully functional.

The UNOCHA official also outlined the significant obstacles to battling the virus within Syria, including frequent population movement, the difficulty in acquiring medical supplies and protective equipment, and in particular the difficulty in enforcing social distancing within crowded refugee camps which have “low levels of sanitation services”.

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Syria has put the number of its coronavirus cases at 10 so far, but there is much speculation that the regime is covering-up the actual situation, with other reports putting the number at 57.

Touching on the impact of the ongoing nine-year-long civil war between the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and Syrian opposition forces, Lowcock said that the humanitarian needs “remain enormous,” with over half of the population having been forced to flee from their homes and over 11 million people – including almost 5 million children – needing urgent humanitarian aid. He acknowledged the current struggle that displaced Syrians are enduring, as nearly 8 million lack reliable access to food and 500,000 children are chronically malnourished as a result. The rampant child malnutrition, he added, is rarely possible to recover from fully.

Children of Syrian families, who have been forcibly displaced are seen at a camp in Idlib, Syria on 14 February 2020 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

Children of Syrian families, who have been forcibly displaced, are seen at a camp in Idlib, Syria on 14 February 2020 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

The main concern amongst many in the international community is that if the virus spreads further within Syria, the refugees could be infected and cause havoc in the already-struggling refugee camps in north-west Syria and Turkey. Analysts are already predicting that the potential second wave of the respiratory coronavirus to hit the world will most likely originate with Syrian refugees travelling to Europe as they flee from the Assad regime.

The UN has called for an immediate global ceasefire – particularly in Syria – in order to battle the pandemic effectively.

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UN Special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen also addressed the Security Council. “After terrible violence, an uneasy calm prevails on the ground,” he explained, “and now, Syrians face a new potentially devastating threat in Covid-19.” He echoed Lowcock’s concerns and warned that Syria is at high risk of being unable to contain the pandemic.

Since the virus was first confirmed in the country over a week ago, the regime has imposed strict measures, including the closure of schools, parks, restaurants and other public facilities, and a ban on public transport, along with a nationwide curfew. One result of the regime’s handling of the crisis is the shortage of food; even bread is in short supply and only obtainable at significant risk by breaking the curfew and waiting in large crowds.