Damascus, 14 April 2020
We face today a global health crisis unlike any other seen during our lifetime. The spread of COVID-19 has already upended countless lives, battered economies, and caused immense human suffering. It is likely few of us will be left untouched.
In Syria, 25 cases including the tragic deaths of two people, have been confirmed to date. Having seen the trajectory of other countries, it is certain enormous challenges are ahead.
With this in mind, as the United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, I want to assure that the UN, alongside our partners, are doing everything we can to support a comprehensive, multi-pronged effort to stem the impacts of COVID-19.
At the same time, we are committed to continuing our vital humanitarian assistance programmes that provide a lifeline to millions in need.
The past weeks have starkly demonstrated how even the world’s best health systems can stagger under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, in Syria, nine years of crisis has resulted in a fragile health system, too few qualified health personnel, and damaged essential infrastructure. Millions of people, whose lives have already been marked by suffering, live in camps, collective shelters and informal sites where social distancing and regular handwashing are luxuries.
The UN and our humanitarian partners reach millions of families across Syria each month with life-saving assistance. With the Coronavirus now in Syria, those programmes are now more challenging than ever to safely deliver.
Nevertheless, the UN and our partners are determined to support the people in Syria to fight COVID-19. Work is underway, and much has already been achieved.
As the lead agency directing and coordinating international health within the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Syria is working closely with local health authorities and partners. In line with WHO’s global recommendations, the UN is prioritizing support to rapidly enhance laboratory and case investigation capacity across Syria. To this end, WHO has already supported extensive rehabilitation of the Central Public Health Laboratory in Damascus, trained dozens of laboratory technicians and rapid response team members in testing and sample collection, and procured critical diagnosis equipment, including five polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines and multiple shipments of testing kits.
With these efforts, testing capacity has already quadrupled. In addition, WHO is supporting the training of more laboratory technicians to staff three new laboratories in Aleppo, Homs and Lattakia governorates, with testing due to commence soon. This is an important first step towards the Ministry of Health achieving their goal of a working laboratory in each of Syria’s 14 governorates.
It is also our priority to support and protect frontline health workers. Accordingly, WHO and UNICEF have already distributed nearly a million pieces of essential personal protection equipment, including masks, goggles, gloves, and disinfection kits, and provided training in their proper use. Work is ongoing to support training of health workers in case management, and to bolster hospitals, clinics and isolation facilities. I pay tribute to the tremendously brave health workers who are at the forefront of safeguarding the health of families across Syria, often working under very difficult circumstances.
We are also working with communities to support them to better protect themselves. Many of our UN agencies and partners, led by UNICEF, are engaging with communities to raise awareness on COVID-19, including on how to prevent its spread. Water and sanitation is also a focus; and therefore, the UN and partners are also continuing to deliver millions of liters of water daily to communities in need, and by the end of April, more than two million bars of soap will have been distributed. UNHCR are focusing on enhancing shelters available to displaced and refugee families; likewise UNFPA are reaching more women and children with increased hygiene resources.
While first and foremost a health crisis, COVID-19 will have far-reaching implications. These impacts – including loss of jobs, suspension of essential schooling, disruption to supply chains, and a greater risk of food insecurity – will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. If not adequately addressed, the consequences may be felt for years to come.
This is also why the UN is determined, alongside our partners, to keep delivering the humanitarian assistance Syrians need, now more than ever. As the UN’s support suppressing COVID-19 is harnessing our expertise and resources across multiple sectors, including in water, sanitation and hygiene, education, food and agriculture, and nutrition, we are also working to ensure as little disruption to our range of existing aid programs as possible. Whether it be WFP’s food assistance to 3.5 million Syrians each month, UNRWA’s support to 438,000 Palestine refugees, mobile health clinics, vaccinations for children, essential protection programs, education in camps, or support to farmers, humanitarian programs are being adapted where possible.
This would not be possible without the thousands of dedicated humanitarian workers across Syria, some of who are working far from their families and loved ones. As we have stepped up to meet this new challenge, I am impressed by the collective commitment to action, and give my sincere thanks.
In the coming weeks, the UN will continue to provide regular updates on our efforts. Recently, the UN launched a US$2 billion coordinated global response plan to fight COVID-19 in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, including Syria. I urge Member States to give generously to this appeal, and to continue their strong support to our humanitarian programmes to help those most in need.