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UN official: COVID cases likely far higher than Syria says

August 27, 2020 GMT
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The Syrian Constitutional Committee Co-Chair Hadi al-Bahra, left, wearing face mask as precaution against the spread of the coronavirus as he leaves the building following the announcement of the suspension of the conference due to cases of Covid-19, affecting members of one of the delegations, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
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The Syrian Constitutional Committee Co-Chair Hadi al-Bahra, left, wearing face mask as precaution against the spread of the coronavirus as he leaves the building following the announcement of the suspension of the conference due to cases of Covid-19, affecting members of one of the delegations, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Reports of Syrian health care facilities filling up and increasing death notices and burials appear to indicate that actual coronavirus cases in the war-torn country “far exceed official figures” confirmed by the government, a senior U.N. humanitarian official said Thursday.

Syria has so far reported more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, including 100 deaths.

However, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs Ramesh Rajasingham told the U.N. Security Council that “rising patient numbers are adding pressure to the fragile health system” in Syria, now in its 10th year of war.

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Many people “are reluctant to seek care at medical facilities, leading to more severe complications when they do arrive,” he said, adding that “health workers still lack sufficient personal protective equipment and associated supplies.”

Of the virus cases confirmed by the Syrian Ministry of Health, Rajasingham said, “the majority cannot be traced to a known source.” He said several health facilities briefly suspended operations this month because of capacity issues and staff becoming infected by the coronavirus.

In the Al Hol camp in northeast Syria, where 65,000 mainly women and children connected to Islamic State fighters are detained, Rajasingham said “12 health facilities had to suspend operations this month due to staff becoming infected, having to self-isolate, or due to lack of personal protective equipment.”

“Both field hospitals at the camp have since resumed operations,” he said.

Germany and Belgium, who are in charge of Syrian humanitarian issues in the Security Council, said in a joint statement that “the spread of COVID-19 across the country is increasing exponentially.”

“Testing capacities remain very low, so most cases may go unnoticed,” they said. “Numbers we hear may only represent the tip of the iceberg.”

They also warned that “the destruction of health facilities and the shortage of health workers dramatically imperil any response.”

Germany and Belgium urged greater humanitarian access, sharply criticizing demands by Syrian ally Russia that led to the closing of the Al Yaroubiya crossing from Iraq to northeast Syria in January and last month’s closing of the Bab al-Salam crossing point from Turkey to northwest Syria.

“What is needed is distribution to all people and health care facilities – and not the regime deciding who is ‘worthy of receiving aid’ and who is not,” they said. “The burden of responsibility lies on those countries that have systematically limited humanitarian access” to Syria.

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U.S. political coordinator Rodney Hunter expressed concern at reports of “a massive coronavirus outbreak in the Damascus region and elsewhere in regime-controlled areas.”

He called on Syrian authorities to grant access to the U.N. and international organizations to collect statistics and determine the scale of the pandemic in the country, saying so far there has been “no transparency” by the government.

“The coronavirus is absolutely exacerbating the Syrian humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Hunter said the United States is “deeply saddened” by reports from the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF earlier this month that eight children under the age of five died in the Al Hol camp in less than a week.

“We understand that four of those deaths were caused by malnutrition-related complications,” he said.

“These deaths were completely preventable if the thousands of camp inhabitants still received the life-saving combination” of deliveries from Damascus across conflict lines and from Iraq through the Al Yaroubiya crossing, Hunter said.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia expressed confidence that once logistics were “adjusted,” the U.N. would be able to increase supplies through the one remaining border crossing from Turkey at Bab al-Hawa.

He pointed to a recent article in the British medical journal, “The Lancet,” which said that the “Syrian health system, already fractured by years of conflict, is being further destroyed by sanctions.”

Entitled “EU guidance impedes humanitarian action to prevent COVID-19 in Syria,” it says: “Widespread cooperation to ensure efficient delivery of medicines and equipment to combat COVID-19 in Syria is lacking.”

Nebenzia also pointed to an Aug. 25 statement by three key foreign powers in the Syrian conflict — Iran and Russia, which support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which backs the opposition — on the sidelines of a meeting in Geneva of government and opposition figures on drafting a new constitution for the country.

Those three countries rejected all unilateral sanctions, Nebenzia said.

He denounced the “hypocrisy” and “double standards” of Security Council members that continue to support sanctions against Syria.

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