UN chief says initial coronavirus cases in Syria just ‘tip of the iceberg’

UN chief says initial coronavirus cases in Syria just ‘tip of the iceberg’

The UN humanitarian chief has warned that the 10 cases of Covid-19 and one death confirmed in Syria are just “the tip of the iceberg”.

Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council on Monday that “all efforts to prevent, detect and respond to Covid-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system.”

Only around half of the country’s hospitals and primary health care facilities were fully functional at the end of 2019.

Mr Lowcock said efforts to combat the virus are also impeded by high levels of population movement, challenges to obtaining critical supplies including protective equipment and ventilators, and difficulties of isolating in crowded camps for the displaced.

With the Syrian conflict entering its 10th year this month, Mr Lowcock said that over half the population has been forced to flee their homes.

The UN has warned that Syria’s initial report of 11 coronavirus cases was just the “tip of the iceberg” for the war-ravaged country (Baderkhan Ahmad/AP)
The UN has warned that Syria’s initial report of 11 coronavirus cases was just the “tip of the iceberg” for the war-ravaged country (Baderkhan Ahmad/AP)

He added that more than 11 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance, almost eight million people do not have reliable access to food and 500,000 children are chronically malnourished.

Mr Lowcock said humanitarian needs in Syria “remain enormous”, with data showing clear evidence of deteriorating conditions since December.

UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the council that “after terrible violence, an uneasy calm prevails on the ground – and now, Syrians face a new potentially devastating threat in Covid-19.”

He echoed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for an immediate global cease-fire in all conflicts to tackle the coronavirus, warning that “Syria is at high risk of being unable to contain the pandemic”.

Global coronavirus cases and deaths. See story HEALTH Coronavirus. Infographic PA Graphics
Global coronavirus cases and deaths. See story HEALTH Coronavirus. Infographic PA Graphics

In northwest Syria, he said, “there has been a significant decrease in violence, especially in aerial attacks and ground operations. Sporadic incidents continue, involving all sides.”

And in the northeast, he expressed appreciation that arrangements between key parties including Russia, Turkey, the United States and Syrians, “also continue to broadly hold”.

“But in both the northeast and northwest, there is a real risk of hostilities resuming,” Mr Pedersen said.

“If that happened, the pre-existing dangers to civilians would be multiplied by the pandemic and the virus would spread like wildfire, with devastating effects for the Syrian people – humanitarian, societal and economic. It could rebound across international borders.”

Mr Pedersen said the UN is engaging concerned countries to put aside all hurdles and ensure humanitarian exemptions so critical items can be moved into Syria urgently to combat Covid-19.

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