An immediate nationwide ceasefire is needed in Syria to enable an “all-out-effort” to stamp out the coronavirus and prevent it ravaging a beleaguered population, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
Prisoners and millions of displaced people, especially in rebel-held Idlib in north-west, are vulnerable after nine years of war, they said.
Syrians are “acutely vulnerable to COVID-19,” Geir Pedersen, UN special envoy for Syria, said in a statement appealing on humanitarian grounds for “large-scale releases of detainees and abductees.”
Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Near and Middle East, echoed the call.
“To some extent we can’t fight two battles at the same time. We can’t dedicate time and energy to what the pandemic response requires and be addressing emergency needs of people recently displaced or destitute at the same time.”
Carboni said the Swiss-based aid agency asked Syrian authorities to allow it to help with infection prevention measures and provide hygiene supplies at nine central prisons.
“Now we hope authorities will answer positively soon,” he said. “We believe people detained and displaced are more vulnerable than the general population.”
The ICRC, whose largest humanitarian operation worldwide is in Syria, is the only agency allowed into detention centres – where some experts estimate 130 000 people are held.
The Assad government on Sunday announced its first coronavirus case after unconfirmed reports suggested the coronavirus was detected but covered up, a charge officials denied.
“Healthcare facilities are destroyed or degraded. There is a shortage of key medical equipment and health professionals,” Pedersen said.
The ICRC’s Carboni said Syrian health officials say the number of cases is limited, action is needed to halt a spread, including provision of clean water.
“Even if there are five or 10 cases, our work would be to focus on making sure water reaches people because without water you can’t wash your hands,” he said.
In al-Hasakah a pump station providing water to 800 000 people has been out of operation for three days and needs repair, he said.
“We installed 45 water tanks around the city and are water trucking until we fix the pump station,” Carboni said.
The focus across Syria must be on prevention, he said. “When they start having cases and if it gets out of hand, it’s going to be difficult to address, as we see in Western countries where there are sophisticated health systems,” Carboni said.
He noted difficulties with putting in place general health guidance to contain the spread of the coronavirus. “The way to address the pandemic is to stay home. But when you are an IDP (internally displaced person), you don’t have a home. How do you do that? Social distancing becomes a luxury.”