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NE Syria: 60% increase in COVID-19 cases in past week, IRC calls for increased health capacity

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In just one week, cases of COVID-19 have risen by over 60% in northeast Syria – a situation that is cause for serious alarm, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Of particular concern is the number of health workers who have either tested positive – or been exposed – to the disease, as they are now in isolation, which is putting even greater strain on an already overwhelmed and understaffed health system.

Al Hol camp, the largest camp in northeast Syria, has been particularly badly affected with nine health facilities, including two field hospitals, already forced to suspend operations - either due to staff having to self-isolate or due to lack of PPE.

Christine Petrie, Country Director for the International Rescue Committee in northeast Syria, said:

“With the closure of so many health facilities in Al Hol, we’ve seen the number of patients coming to our clinics double in the past week, and – while we’ve tripled the number of doctors on duty in order to meet the needs of all those seeking health care – this is putting a serious strain on our health teams.”

There are over 65,000 people living in Al Hol and the camp, which has a population density of 37,570 people per km2, is so congested that it is practically impossible for people to practice physical distancing. 

There is also extremely poor sanitation across the camp and many people are living with chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma, making them particularly vulnerable to the disease.

“If the pandemic worsens we’re going to see the health situation deteriorate rapidly,” Petrie continues. “The effects of the reduction in health capacity have already been seen in Al Hol, where eight children died from preventable causes in the space of just five days earlier this month. All but one of them could have been saved if they had been able to access treatment.”

Of the 24 health clinics in Al Hol, only 15 are currently able to provide health care. In addition, two field hospitals were forced to suspend operations in early August due to confirmed COVID-19 cases among health staff in one – and lack of PPE in another – while a third field hospital has been out of action for the past six months. 

The IRC says there is an urgent need to scale-up health capacity in the camp, and across the whole of northeast Syria, to prevent further deaths - both from preventable causes and from COVID-19 itself. 

The removal of the Yarubiyah border crossing in January, and the failure of the UN Security Council to reinstate access in July, has left northeast Syria struggling to cope with existing health needs - let alone a pandemic. 

Approximately 2.16 million treatment courses were delivered to northeast Syria via the Yarubiyah border crossing in 2019. Agencies face a critical shortage of medicines, PPE, ventilators and ICU beds making it extremely challenging for health professionals to respond to the pandemic. Lack of access to these supplies provides a stark illustration of the impact of the loss of the crossing point, which supported health care provision for millions of Syrians. It must urgently be reauthorised to prevent further suffering and further loss of life.


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.