Entering its 10th year, the conflict in Syria has resulted in an unprecedented, massive internal displacement, putting many Syrians in a disastrous humanitarian situation, especially the approximately 1 Million displaced in Idlib, of whom 80% are women and children. Many of them now live in makeshift shelter or overcrowded camps, without access to water or basic services, and with a health system largely destroyed by air strikes carried out by the Syrian regime and its allies. In this fragile environment of huge unmet humanitarian needs, the threat of the COVID19 pandemic adds enormous challenges in view of adequate preparedness and response measures to the disease outbreak.
“The COVID19 threat is only exacerbating the needs that have already been there amidst a very dire humanitarian situation“ stressed Deputy Head of the EU Delegation in Geneva, Carl Hallergard, who chaired the webinar, which was attended by some 70 participants. “This is an emergency that calls for extraordinary solidarity for people who have suffered already for a very long time“.
Calling in directly from Gaziantep, Mark Cutts, UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator outlined the current situation in North West Syria and the conditions under which a large displaced population lives. There is not enough water, food nor adequate shelter, and movement restrictions have made humanitarian aid flows even more challenging. In this setting, the arrival of COVID19 will be particularly devastating, as people are already very vulnerable, many hospitals destroyed, and many doctors and nurses have left. He called for sustained humanitarian funding, immediate supply and in-kind donations of medical and laboratory equipment. He echoed the global appeals for a total ceasefire, to focus all efforts on fighting the pandemic outbreak.
Yakzan Skishakly, Director of Maram Foundation, reminded of the challenging living environment for displaced persons, who mostly live in informal settlements rather than “camps“ and lack proper access to water, sanitation or hygiene; in these circumstances social distancing as a measure to prevent spreading the virus is simply impossible - “Even if people manage to separate during the day, the whole family sleeps under the same sheet at night.“ Dr Munzer Al Khalil, Director of Idlib Health Directorate, added that there is not one hospital in Idlib ready to receive COVID19 patients after years of hardship on their health care system. The very limited number of intensive care beds are all in use. In a context where people come to the hospital with myriad of severe problems, “providing space for coronavirus patients would mean denying space for other health issues.“ This analysis was shared by Dr Mazen Kewara, Country Director of the Syrian American Medical Society, who added that the lack of protective equipment for health care workers, existing in all parts of the world, puts doctors and nurses in Syria only at an enhanced risk. Dr Maria al Abdeh, Director of Women Now for Development, stressed that this double crisis is disproportionally affecting women and children. Bahjat Hajjar from the NGO "Local Administration Councils' Unit (LACU)" highlighted the enormous efforts that local communities and local governance structures in opposition held areas, including the civil defense (white helmets) and the health and education directorates, are undertaking to raise awareness and protect the communities.
In a powerful intervention, Senior Humanitarian Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Najat Rochdi, called on the collective responsibility not to abandon people from North West Syria, the most vulnerable ones in the world. “We should ring the bell because we know how the virus is behaving, that overnight we will move to a disaster. Today we have the unique opportunity to come together in solidarity and enable fast-tracked solutions.“
The Deputy Head of the EU Delegation Ambassador Hallergard in Geneva concluded the webinar with the pleas raised by all panelists in agreement: asking the international community to maintain a total nation-wide ceasefire to allow fighting the coronavirus, and requesting urgent in-kind donations of especially ventilators and personal protective equipment. “This is a moment for solidarity and a sense of duty towards those that have suffered hugely for already a number of years. North West Syria is one of the places in the world most vulnerable to the COVID19 pandemic, we owe it to Syrians to support them and prepare them adequately”.