Aid agencies are moving to prevent a novel coronavirus outbreak in war-torn northwestern Syria, where damaged health infrastructure and massive displacement due to attacks by the Bashar Assad regime and Russia make potential containment measures a nearly impossible task.
Syria has not yet confirmed any coronavirus cases, but its "fragile health system may not have the capacity to detect and respond" to an epidemic, Hedinn Halldorsson, a spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO), told AFP.
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 on the Idlib region, overcrowded settlements are teeming with fresh arrivals, and many of the displaced are sleeping in freezing temperatures in open spaces.
Medical facilities have come under heavy target during the latest bombing campaign, further reducing the capacity of a health system ravaged by nearly nine years of conflict. Unable to provide services from government-held territory inside Syria, the WHO provides cross-border assistance to opposition-held Idlib via Turkey, Halldorsson said. Health personnel are being trained, "and laboratories in both Idlib and Ankara are being prepared and stocked to safely test and diagnose the virus," he added.
A cease-fire deal went into effect Friday, bringing relative calm to Idlib for the first time in months after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Moscow for negotiations on the humanitarian and military situation in Idlib. But many fear the fighting will eventually resume, in a further challenge to efforts to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.
Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee said the situation in Idlib was "especially ripe for a spread" of the virus, telling AFP: "An outbreak would be devastating for thousands whose health status is already compromised due to lack of sufficient food, clean water and exposure to cold weather." Buswell said the IRC was focusing on "enhancing preventative measures" by raising awareness, providing medical supplies and strengthening disease surveillance and reporting systems, adding that: "If an outbreak is reported, we will work with local health actors to activate a response."
Mustafa al-Abdo, the deputy head of Idlib's opposition-run health department, appealed for the formation of an isolated medical center that would be ready to receive cases. He also called on aid agencies to equip health workers with testing kits, medical masks, gloves and other equipment for prevention.