The European Union on Sunday called for an immediate and nationwide cease-fire in Syria to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement, EU External Action spokesman Peter Stano stressed the dangers of the virus in war zones, reiterating the importance of ending hostilities.
The cease-fire "is also a precondition for halting the spread of the coronavirus and protecting an already struggling population from its potentially devastating consequences," he added.
The situation is particularly critical in the northwestern province of Idlib because of the high number of displaced people, he said.
The EU joined the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen's call to stop violence and limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The Syrian regime announced last week its first case after unconfirmed reports suggested the virus had been detected but covered up, charges officials have denied, while rolling out tight measures as the disease swarmed neighboring countries.
In the opposition-held northwest, no cases have been confirmed, but patients have been showing possible symptoms for weeks.
According to the U.N.’s latest humanitarian assessments, the Syrian conflict has produced more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees and 6.1 million internally displaced people. More than 11 million people inside Syria require humanitarian assistance, including 4.8 million children. Only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary health care centers across Syria were fully functional at the end of last year. Up to 70% of the health workforce has left the country.
The number of people without reliable access to food is nearly 8 million, and in just one year, it has increased by more than 20%. Across the country, 500,000 children are chronically malnourished. The number of displaced people seeking refuge in informal settlements and collective camps has increased by 42% year on year, to a total of 1.2 million this year.
So far, there have been multiple efforts for a political solution for Syria, the latest of which came with the formation of a constitutional committee under the U.N.'s supervision.
The planned constitutional committee, including representatives from the opposition, the regime and guarantor countries, was supposed to be tasked with writing and establishing Syria's postwar constitution, which is seen as a steppingstone to elections in the war-torn country. The committee consisted of 150 members, including a 50-member delegation from the regime and a 50-member delegation from the opposition. Although formed with high hopes, numerous objections on various topics from the Syrian regime, including the members themselves and the concerning developments from the field, the committee has failed to meet the expectations so far. On Nov. 29, the second round of Syria talks ended with failure to agree on an agenda between the regime and opposition groups.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Friday expressed concern over the potential consequences of the pandemic on the more than 1 million civilians displaced from Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke spoke of the effects of the disease on Syria during a video news conference in the U.N.’s Geneva office.
“The U.N. expresses concern over the potential outcomes of COVID-19 on millions of people throughout Syria and especially on more than 900,000 displaced civilians in Syria’s northwest (Idlib),” Laerke stated, underlining that displaced people in Idlib lack food and clean water in overcrowded camps.
Damaged health infrastructure and massive displacement due to attacks by the Bashar Assad regime and Russia make potential containment measures in the region a nearly impossible task.
Despite a cease-fire agreed on March 6 between Turkey and Russia, few believe the Syrian regime will back off its plans to eventually retake the province, leaving few options for the displaced.
Laerke also indicated that there are 6 million displaced within Syria and that medical services are highly limited.
Saying that only half of the medical institutions were able to operate since the end of 2019, Laerke stated that thousands of medical staff had to leave the country.
Syria's health care system has been ravaged by nearly a decade of war that has displaced millions of people and spawned rampant poverty. Hospitals and clinics across the country have been destroyed or damaged.
The risk of an outbreak is especially high and most alarming in Syria's northwest, where some 3 million people are trapped in a shrinking opposition bastion battered by months of bombardment, especially in Idlib. With close to a million people displaced since December by a Russian-backed regime offensive in the Idlib region, overcrowded settlements are teeming with fresh arrivals, and many of the displaced are forced to sleep in freezing temperatures in open spaces.
Refugee and internally displaced populations in northeastern and northwestern Syria living in collective shelters, informal settlements and camps are most vulnerable to the disease while health care workers with inadequate protective equipment are also at risk.