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Press Release

Hundreds of thousands will be at risk if COVID-19 spreads in northeast Syria

With two more cases of COVID-19 confirmed in northeast Syria, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is warning that hundreds of thousands of people will be at risk if the disease starts to spread.

With only 28* beds currently available in Intensive Care Units across the northeast, and only 10* ventilators, the organization is concerned that the region’s weak health system will quickly become overwhelmed if the disease takes hold.

Although the IRC will be bringing 30 more ventilators and ICU beds online in the coming weeks - and other humanitarian agencies and local health authorities are working hard to also bolster their responses - huge gaps still remain in the region’s ability to respond.

Christine Petrie, Country Director for the IRC in northeast Syria, said:

“Now that COVID-19 has reached northeast Syria, we’re going to see how truly virulent this disease can be. There are 160,000 extremely vulnerable people living in camps and communal shelters across the region and they have limited ability to protect themselves.

“In Al Hol, the population density is 37,570 people per square kilometer and there are over 65,000 people living in extremely close proximity. There is absolutely no way for people to practice social distancing in this camp, and many are already living with chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma, which means they will be particularly badly affected by this disease if it spreads. 

“Although we have been raising awareness of COVID-19 prevention and containment measures in Al Hol, it has been difficult to do so in the area where foreign women and children live. We provide health care through one of our mobile medical units in that area, but the camp authorities do not allow home visits, which means that agencies can only raise awareness among those who come for treatment and many people are therefore not provided with accurate information to be able to properly protect themselves. This underscores the urgency for countries to repatriate these women and children who have been languishing with no prospects for far too long and are now at very high risk.”

Outside the camps, the situation is not much better as Dr Mohammed Adbalgadir - Health Coordinator for the IRC in northeast Syria - explains: 

“In addition to the camps in northeast Syria being overcrowded, the towns and cities are congested too and there is a large elderly population in the region - one of the groups most at-risk. In Hassakeh, hundreds of people who fled during the military offensive in October last year are living crammed together in schools. In Raqqa too, there are thousands of people living in informal camps and dilapidated buildings, with poor sanitation and limited access to health care. 

“People have been through so much already. The additional burden of this pandemic is going to take its toll and they are in as great a need as ever. Our health teams are continuing to do their vital work providing healthcare to displaced people through health clinics and mobile medical units, and we have been working hard to raise awareness of the disease among those we support so that they are as prepared as they can be. 

“One of our top priorities is ensuring that our health staff are able to safely continue their life-saving work. All of our health clinics remain open and are prepared to transport suspected cases to the designated hospitals, but at the moment we only have enough personal protective equipment to last for one month. We are sourcing additional supplies, but it has been proving a challenge for us, as for all humanitarian agencies. In January, the delivery of aid was severely compromised when the UN Security Council stripped the Yaroubiyeh border crossing point from Resolution 2504, preventing the UN from providing medical supplies, pharma and other critical COVID related aid across the border into northeast Syria. The Council must urgently address this, particularly given the need to scale-up the response to fight COVID-19. We need unfettered and direct access to those in need as well as urgently needed funding, more supplies and more medical equipment so that we can avert a disaster.”


*Figures taken from the WHO Emergency Readiness & Response Plan for COVID-19 in Northeast Syria

The IRC has been delivering aid in Syria since 2012, and last year - along with partners - the organisation delivered services to almost a million people in the country. The IRC is the largest provider of health care in northeast Syria and is the only international NGO providing mental health services and emotional support across all its medical facilities. The IRC runs women’s empowerment programmes in a number of camps and cities across the region, and provides legal support to IDPs and refugees as well.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.