The United Nations and its partners are doing their utmost to support a comprehensive, multi-pronged effort to stem the impact of COVID-19 in Syria, where the viral disease has claimed the lives of two people, sickened 23 others and presented epic challenges for ensuring the smooth delivery of life-saving assistance.
“Having seen the trajectory of other countries, it is certain enormous challenges are ahead”, said Imran Riza, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, stressing that nine years of crisis also has resulted in a fragile health system, too few qualified health personnel and essential infrastructure that lies in ruins across most of the country.
For the millions of people living in camps, social distancing and regular handwashing are luxuries that are impossible to enact on a wide scale, he said.
As the lead agency, the World Health Organization (WHO) is working closely with local health authorities and partners. In line with its global recommendations, the UN has prioritized support to rapidly enhance laboratory and case investigation capacity across Syria.
WHO measures to keep coronavirus at bay
To this end, said Mr. Riza, WHO has 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 machines and multiple shipments of testing kits. Testing capacity has already quadrupled.
In addition, WHO is supporting the training of laboratory technicians to staff three new laboratories in Aleppo, Homs and Latakia governorates, with testing due to begin 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,” he explained.
Aid from UNICEF, UNHCR, other agencies
To protect frontline health workers, WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have distributed nearly a million pieces of personal protection equipment - 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.
The Humanitarian Coordinator said many UN agencies and partners, led by UNICEF, are also engaging with communities to raise awareness about COVID-19, noting that by the end of April, more than 2 million soap bars will have been distributed.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), is enhancing shelters available to displaced and refugee families, while the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is reaching more women and children with increased hygiene resources.
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While the Organization’s efforts to suppress COVID-19 are harnessing expertise and resources across multiple sectors - water, sanitation and hygiene, education, food and agriculture, and nutrition included – it is simultaneously working to ensure as little disruption as possible to existing aid programs.
“The UN is determined, alongside our partners, to keep delivering the humanitarian assistance Syrians need, now more than ever,” he assured, adapting programmes where possible - whether it be World Food Programme (WFP) food assistance to 3.5 million Syrians each month, support by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to 438,000 Palestine refugees, mobile health clinics, child vaccinations, essential protection programmes, education in camps or support to farmers.”
Given the headwinds created by COVID-19, he urged Governments around the world to contribute to the United Nations $2 billion coordinated global response plan to fight the pandemic in the most vulnerable countries. “It is likely few of us will be left untouched.”