In this Issue
P.1 Working to address COVID-19 in Syria
P.2 COVID-19 mitigation means underway in north-west
P.4 Humanitarian needs dire in north-west
P.4 Cross-border assistance from Turkey increasing
P.5 Update on Rukban returnees
Working to address COVID-19 in Syria
On 22 March, the Syrian Ministry of Health (MoH) in Damascus announced the first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19. As is the case in the more than 200 countries and territories already affected by the pandemic, the situation in Syria continues to evolve rapidly. As of 16 April, 33 cases have been announced, including two fatalities and five recoveries.
All countries are struggling to meet the manifold challenges posed by COVID-19, but the situation in Syria is particularly acute. Nine years of crisis has deeply impacted some of the most important services essential to combating COVID-19, including health, water and sanitation. Amongst health, only 57 public hospitals are functioning and there are significant shortages of trained health workers. The central public health laboratory in Damascus is currently the only facility able to test for COVID-19 in the country.
Compounding matters further, millions of vulnerable Syrians are reliant on humanitarian assistance; difficulties persist in accessing certain areas of the country; and with new border and movement restrictions in place, supply chains are disrupted, and essential personnel face difficulties moving freely.
For example, local NGO Al-Bir and Al-Ihsan, who operate Syrian Humanitarian Fundsupported mobile health clinics in rural Aleppo, has recently been unable to operate since the 29 March ban on travel between urban and rural areas. “We are obtaining exemption approvals available for humanitarian workers and we will resume our operations – essential health services to vulnerable people in rural areas – hopefully soon,” said Ahmed, a project manager.
Despite these challenges, the UN and humanitarian partners in Syria have been working overtime to coordinate and support measures to mitigate COVID-19 impacts, while at the same time adapting existing humanitarian programming to ensure that life-saving aid can continue.
Guided by the eight pillars of WHO’s global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, as well as the ninth pillar on socio-economic impacts, WHO in Syria has been leading the multisectoral response in close coordination with the relevant authorities. “WHO continues to provide technical guidance and support to the Ministry of Health in its readiness and response to COVID-19, focusing on four main priorities. This includes enhancing surveillance and lab capacity, protecting health workers by providing protective equipment (PPE), case management, isolation and contact tracing , as well as risk communication,” Dr Nima Abid, WHO Representative in Syria, said.
In practical terms, this has included WHO support in upgrading and rehabilitating the central laboratory, procurement of essential testing equipment and kits – the first shipment of testing kits arrived in Syria in early February – and distribution of thousands of PPE, including more than 610,000 face masks to date. Further support includes the procurement of five polyamerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, to enable more laboratories to be set up across the country.
At the time of writing, training of laboratory technicians was ongoing and equipment had been shipped to set up laboratories in Aleppo, Lattakia and Homs. While active surveillance and sample collection for testing have begun, the UN’s support to further expand laboratories, including in the north-east, is a priority.
WHO’s further broad response includes supporting active surveillance planning inclusive of north-east Syria, and specialized technical and information trainings. Of note, WHO, UNICEF, and health and WASH partners are also working intensively with relevant authorities to bolster infection prevention and control, including through mapping and upgrading water and sanitation facilities in health clinics, quarantine and isolation sites and IDP camps.
UN agencies and sectoral leads are also adapting existing humanitarian programs to meet evolving needs as a result of COVID-19. Nutrition partners are, for example, supporting authorities to produce COVID-19 nutrition-related informational material for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, and on foods that boost the immune system. Shelter partners are conducting assessments with relevant authorities to determine repairs needed to reduce risks in collective shelters, particularly concerning overcrowding and inadequate sanitation facilities.
The protection sector is also training more than 3,000 outreach and community volunteers across the country for awareness raising.
At the same time, UN agencies and humanitarian partners are incorporating necessary precautionary measures to protect humanitarian workers and the communities they serve.
While some programmes have been necessarily suspended, notably education projects, albeit some projects have been able to continue, essential health, WASH, nutrition, protection, other education, food security, and logistics activities are largely resuming after critical modification have been put in place.
Measures adopted include combining distributions, for example: including sanitation and NFIs distributions with food; installation of hand washing facilities at distribution points; and ensuring front-line workers have the necessary PPE to safely undertake their work.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.