UN urges Syria to stop fighting, take urgent steps to prevent greater tragedy due to COVID-19


Syria has confirmed nine cases of COVID-19 infection from an earlier five cases, but medics and witnesses say there are many more. Officials deny a cover-up but have imposed a lockdown and draconian measures including a nationwide night curfew to stem the pandemic.

A woman who died after being rushed to hospital for emergency treatment was found to have been infected by coronavirus in the first officially reported death from the disease, Syria’s health ministry said on Sunday.

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has urged warring parties to cease fighting and allow space for urgent measures to be taken to avoid further catastrophe.

Nearly nine years of war have left the Syrian health care system acutely weakened. Only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary healthcare centres are functioning, while 70% of the health workforce has left the country, according to the World Health Organisation.

Much of this situation is a result of pro-Government forces systematically targeting medical facilities. Nurses, doctors and medical volunteers have been attacked, detained and disappeared by parties to the conflict. The Commission reiterates that all attacks on medical providers, facilities, hospitals, and first responders must cease immediately.

“Syrian civilians now face a deadly threat in the form of the COVID-19 outbreak, one that will strike without distinction and that will be devastating for the most vulnerable in the absence of urgent preventative action,” said Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission.

“In order to avoid a looming tragedy, the parties must heed the United Nations Secretary-General’s and the Special Envoy’s calls for a cease-fire – anything short of that will likely condemn large numbers of civilians to preventable deaths”, he continued.

The Commission supports Special Envoy Pederson’s appeal for all parties to commit to an immediate ceasefire and also welcomes the Syrian Democratic Forces statement on avoiding military action in light of the pandemic.

Among the communities most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the more than 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians. This includes more than a million civilians, mainly women and children, who have been living in the open or overcrowded tents and makeshift camps along the Syria-Turkey border in Idlib Governorate. They have extremely limited access to clean water or sanitation.

Elsewhere in the country, tens of thousands of others remain interned with limited access to medical care, including the 70,000 people, primarily women and children, in the al-Hol camp in eastern Syria. “Humanitarian aid, including medical supplies and support, must be allowed to flow to such persons based on need and not political considerations,” urged Commissioner Karen AbuZayd.

The situation of those detained countrywide is even more critical now. The Commission has previously documented deaths in detention due to torture, beatings, inhumane living conditions, lack of adequate medical care, and wilful neglect.

A recent Government amnesty decree grants pardons and reduced sentences, but unless broadly and swiftly implemented many more detainees may not survive. “We reiterate our call to immediately release all those detained arbitrarily or unlawfully, as well as all children, the elderly, the disabled and the infirm without delay” urged Commissioner Megally.

The Commission also reiterates calls made by Secretary-General Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet regarding the need to ease or waive sectoral sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support.

For millions of Syrians the global pandemic threatens to unleash new facets of suffering on a population that has already endured unfathomable hardship, violations, and deprivations. Urgent action is need by all actors in the Syrian Arab Republic as well as the international community to avert yet another tragedy. (Source: OHCHR)