COVID-19 in Syria could lead to one of the most severe outbreaks in the world, warns IRC

With Coronavirus now having been confirmed in Syria the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is warning that it could soon become one of the most severe outbreaks in the world.

Nine years of conflict have left the health system across the country in ruins and an outbreak in the northwest or northeast of the country would have devastating consequences, where large parts of the population are displaced and healthcare services are overstretched.

In Idlib particularly, nearly a million people have been forced to flee their homes since December 2019, and many are living in squalid, overcrowded settlements where sanitation is poor, social distancing is almost impossible and access to basic services is severely limited.

Misty Buswell, Regional Policy and Advocacy Director for the IRC in the Middle East – said:

“Conditions in Idlib are ripe for a spread of the disease. A lack of food, clean water and exposure to cold weather has already left hundreds of thousands of people in poor health, making them even more vulnerable to a disease that can spread as quickly as COVID-19. Although there have so far been no confirmed cases in Idlib, it is not yet clear where testing will be carried out, and it is possible that the disease is already making its way through the population.

“We know that it has already caused havoc in countries with strong health systems, so the devastation it will cause in Idlib is unimaginable, where 85 attacks on health facilities took place last year, and the majority of the hospitals that remain open are unable to cope with the needs that already exist.”

So far, only three hospitals with Intensive Care Units have been identified to look after confirmed cases in northwest Syria. Although 15 more are due to be upgraded, it is unclear how many beds these will have, what equipment – such as ventilators and monitors – they will have, and when they will be ready to look after patients in a critical condition.

In the northeast of the country, the concern is just as great. With the UN no longer able to provide medical supplies from across the border, the ability of many humanitarian organizations to meet the healthcare needs of those in camps such as Al Hol - where there are close to 70,000 people living in extremely cramped conditions - has already been compromised.

“In northeast Syria, only one out of 16 hospitals is fully functioning, which means that two of the three hospitals that have been identified to quarantine and treat suspected cases are not fully equipped. There are only 28 beds available in Intensive Care Units across these three hospitals, only 10 adult ventilators, one paediatric ventilator - and only two doctors trained in how to use them,” Buswell said.

“Pharmaceuticals are also in short supply – and procurement of equipment and medicine to respond to an outbreak of a disease that can spread as quickly as COVID-19 has already been difficult.

“Globally, there is already a shortage of items such as masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment that are essential for health workers to be able to safely do their jobs. The IRC has launched a US $30 million appeal to help us take steps to protect the most vulnerable people across the world, but we are also calling on the international community to take urgent action to support humanitarian efforts to scale up preparedness and response to COVID-19 in Syria.”

The IRCs’ response

In preparation for the current outbreak in Syria, the IRC has been focused on enhancing preventative measures against COVID-19 through working with communities and health care workers to raise awareness about how to prevent the virus and providing supplies and materials to contribute towards prevention measures.  

The organization has also been training healthcare workers to identify the disease and protect themselves against transmission. We have also been reinforcing screening measures at the entrances to all IRC health facilities.

Outside of health programming, the IRC has been working with clients and the communities where we work to ensure they are aware of how to protect themselves from the disease and know where to seek support if they become ill. IRC staff have also been trained in how to deliver psychological first aid to stem fear and anxiety among those impacted by the virus.

With the first cases of the disease now confirmed in Syria, the IRC is also working with the WHO and the Health Cluster to activate a response in an effort to contain the virus and minimize its impact on the millions of Syrians who have already suffered under nine years of conflict.