AMSTERDAM/NORTHEAST SYRIA — As the first reported death from COVID-19 is confirmed in northeast Syria, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is concerned about the region’s preparedness and capacity to respond to an outbreak. A weakened health system, delays in testing and border closures make it near-impossible to adequately respond to a COVID -19 outbreak in the region.
Nine years of conflict and military operations in northeast Syria have left the region with a broken health system. Many health facilities can no longer function and those that remain open were already struggling to respond to the existing medical needs before the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the harsh reality of limited supplies and scarce medical staff, several health services and facilities have been forced to close, leaving patients with chronic diseases and compromised immune systems even more vulnerable during the pandemic. MSF believes that the few functional medical facilities in the region could very quickly become overwhelmed with an influx of COVID-19 patients, leaving many people will be at risk.
MSF is working in collaboration with local health authorities and other organisations in northeast Syria to prepare for an increase in patients infected with COVID-19 in the region. We will concentrate our efforts at Al-Hassakeh National hospital and Al-Hol camp.
“We are deeply concerned about the lack of laboratory testing, the absence of contact tracing, inadequate hospital capacity to manage patients and limited availability of personal protection equipment,” says Crystal van Leeuwen, MSF Medical Emergency Manager for Syria. “The response in northeast Syria at this time is not nearly enough. A significant increase in assistance from health and humanitarian organisations, and donors are essential.”
We are particularly concerned about the conditions in camps across the region where people are living in cramped, congested spaces, with little or no access to medical services or clean water. In Al-Hol camp, where MSF started providing medical and humanitarian assistance in January 2019, the overcrowded camp now houses around 65,000 people, none of whom are allowed to leave. Ninety-four per cent of them are women and children.
“We respect the COVID-19 measures put in place by the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan; however, exemptions and facilitation for supplies must be granted to humanitarian workers to ensure that appropriate levels of support reach northeast Syria,” says Will Turner, MSF Emergency Manager. “Much of the humanitarian support to northeast Syria is reliant on passing through Iraqi Kurdistan.”
“We have much-needed additional supplies and medical staff ready to travel, but we lack the guarantees that they can enter Iraqi Kurdistan and move on into northeast Syria,” says Turner. “In addition, MSF respects a 14-day quarantine measure for our staff entering the Iraqi Kurdistan region.”
MSF stands ready to support a COVID-19 response in northern Syria and Iraq; however, our response remains limited as long as timely access is not granted. MSF urges authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan and northeast Syria to facilitate timely access for humanitarian organisations, including for humanitarian cargo and international staff to travel to and enter into both countries.