Amman, Jordan, September 15, 2021 — As a second COVID wave hits northwest Syria, supplies of testing kits and oxygen are beginning to run low just as daily case numbers reach record highs - and airstrikes increase. The International Rescue Committee is making an urgent call for the ceasefire to be upheld, for civilians to be protected, and for the shortage in COVID-19 health supplies to be urgently addressed.
Since August 1, the total number of COVID cases in northwest Syria has more than doubled and daily case numbers have increased 10-fold, reaching a peak of 1,554 on September 6. Yet, northwest Syria has only a two-week supply of testing kits remaining, with the next batch not expected to be delivered for at least a month. Oxygen supplies are also reaching critically low levels.
Without increased testing capacity, the ability of health workers to monitor the spread of the disease at such a crucial time will be severely degraded. After a decade of conflict and destruction, the health system was close to collapse even before the pandemic hit. Now, the strain it is under is becoming even more evident: over the past two weeks, daily test positivity has ranged from 42 to 58 per cent - in some districts it has been as high as 70 per cent; 118 people have died from COVID in the past two weeks; and the ICUs are at 85 per cent capacity.
To make matters worse, there has been a notable increase in airstrikes in northwest Syria in the past three months that have resulted in multiple fatalities and casualties, as well as restrictions in the provision of humanitarian services - just when they are needed the most. In the past week the IRC has had to suspend its operations three times as a result of the hostilities, and the organisation is concerned that a significant increase in fighting and population displacement will create conditions that could make this second wave even more deadly than the first.
Tanya Evans, the International Rescue Committee's Country Director for Syria, said:
"There has been a rapid surge in COVID cases in northwest Syria over the past month, and in this current wave there have been more daily cases confirmed than we have ever seen before - the total number of active cases is now over 25,000, which almost equals the total number detected in northwest Syria in the entire past year. In the previous wave at the end of 2020, it was very clear that the health system was struggling to cope: not only did testing kits begin to run out, but oxygen supplies also began to run dangerously low - a situation we are beginning to see again today. We are sincerely hoping that the severity of the situation in the first wave is not repeated, but already some patients are being turned away from community treatment centres, and others are being admitted to non-COVID hospitals, increasing the risk of an outbreak in these facilities.
"It is vital that the international community learns the lessons from the first wave and ensures that people in northwest Syria are not subjected to the same abysmal conditions again. More testing kits and more oxygen supplies are urgently needed to address the current shortages, and cross-border access is the only route to secure that. To prevent this situation from being repeated again and again in the future, and from further deteriorating, it is imperative that cross-border access is maintained and expanded and that the COVID response and the humanitarian response as a whole are properly funded. Syria has received a mere 27 per cent of the required funds so far this year - a major drop from previous years - and the health cluster is less than 12 per cent funded. Today, 13 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance - a 30 per cent increase since 2014 and an increase of two million just since last year. This represents the most significant deterioration since the UN Security Council established the cross-border mechanism in 2014 and is a clear indication that more support is required, not less. As the country battles the pandemic, the economic situation deteriorates and families are facing hunger, the international community must step-up and show its support. People's lives depend on it."
About the IRC in northwest Syria
The IRC has been delivering aid in Syria since 2012, and last year the IRC and partners delivered health, protection, livelihoods and early childhood development support to over 900,000 people in the country. In 2020, the IRC and its partners reached over 318,000 patients through 17 health facilities: 2 hospitals -- including one COVID-19 isolation hospital, 2 mobile clinics, 12 primary health care centers and one mental health center. Additionally, we have a fleet of 10 ambulances, 5 of which are dedicated to the COVID-19 response, transporting suspected cases to testing facilities and then transferring them for treatment. In addition to our ambulances, our response to the pandemic includes implementing infection, prevention and control measures across all IRC supported health facilities; training staff in how to protect themselves and their patients from the virus; and continuing to raise awareness of the pandemic in the communities where we and our partners operate. The IRC also provides specialist care to vulnerable women and girls, pregnant women, and the elderly; provides psychosocial support to help children and their families overcome emotional distress; and helps thousands of Syrians gain an income through emergency cash distributions, business grants, and vocational training.