The United Nations has raised concerns over the “widespread” transmission of the new coronavirus in war-torn Syria, where healthcare facilities are under increasing pressure and limited testing is obscuring the real extent of the pandemic.
Syria has so far reported nearly 2,500 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, including 98 deaths.
However, Ramesh Rajasingham, the UN’s deputy emergency relief coordinator, said reports of healthcare facilities filling up and increasing death notices and burials appear to indicate the actual number of cases in the country “far exceed official figures” confirmed by the government.
Rajasingham told the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Thursday “rising patient numbers are adding pressure to the fragile health system” in Syria, now in its 10th year of war.
Of the virus cases confirmed by the Syrian health ministry, Rajasingham said, “the majority cannot be traced to a known source”.
Meanwhile, health workers still lack sufficient personal protective equipment and several facilities have suspended operations because of a lack of capacity and staff falling ill from COVID-19, he said.
Health officials reported the first case of coronavirus in Syria back in March.
Germany and Belgium, which are in charge of Syrian humanitarian issues in the UNSC, said in a joint statement “the spread of COVID-19 across the country is increasing exponentially”.
“Testing capacities remain very low so most cases may go unnoticed,” it said. “Numbers we hear may only represent the tip of the iceberg.”
They also warned “the destruction of health facilities and the shortage of health workers dramatically imperil any response”.
Germany and Belgium urged greater humanitarian access, sharply criticising 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.
On Thursday, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid group also echoed demands to boost dwindling medical supplies amid rising cases.
The al-Yaroubiya entry point on the Iraqi border was shut after a UNSC vote under Russian pressure, causing an aid shortage to the Kurdish-run Syrian region.
Syria’s government – backed by Russia – sees cross-border aid distributed without its permission as a violation of its sovereignty.
IRC President David Miliband said the suspension, renewed in July, “has left millions bereft of essential medicine and health supplies in the midst of this outbreak”.
Kurdish authorities have announced 478 cases of COVID-19, including 28 deaths in the region, but the IRC said rates were likely higher because of low testing rates for the virus.
Nine years of war have battered healthcare provision across Syria, but the situation in the northeast is particularly critical as Kurdish authorities have been left to cope with the coronavirus pandemic largely unaided.
This has raised fears any outbreak could swiftly escalate into an epidemic gripping the entire Kurdish region.