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Ceasefire imperative for Syria amid coronavirus pandemic

A health worker tests an internally displaced Syrian boy as part of security measures to avoid coronavirus, in Azaz, Syria. Picture: Reuters

A health worker tests an internally displaced Syrian boy as part of security measures to avoid coronavirus, in Azaz, Syria. Picture: Reuters

Published Apr 5, 2020


Two of the most highly respected world figures- Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have made critically important calls for a global ceasefire as the world faces the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pope has called for the cessation of all forms of hostilities, encouraged the creation of corridors for humanitarian aid, openness to diplomacy, and attention to those who find themselves in situations of vulnerability.

The pope’s words have never been more prescient when he reminded us in his Angelus last Sunday that we are all members of one human family and said, “In particular, may it inspire a renewed commitment to overcome rivalries among leaders of nations and those parties involved. Conflicts are not resolved through war. Antagonism and differences must be overcome through dialogue and a constructive search for peace.”

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The pope made special mention of all those who have to live in groups such as those in nursing homes, barracks, and prisons.

Guterres went further saying that the most vulnerable - women and children, people with disabilities, the marginalised and the displaced - pay the highest price, and are at the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from Covid-19. Guterres reminded us that armed conflicts still rage around the world and that in war-ravaged countries health systems have collapsed. 

“Health professionals, already few in number, have often been targeted. Refugees and others displaced by violent conflicts are doubly vulnerable. The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. That is why I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world,” Guterres said.

Having heard those urgent calls from the pope and Guterres, we cannot help but focus our attention on the dire situation in Syria, and hope that the protagonists in that conflict heed those calls. 

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, addressed the UN Security Council this week and emphasised that there is an urgent need for a nationwide ceasefire, as Syria is at high risk of not being able to contain the pandemic.

According to Pedersen, if hostilities resume in the north-east and north-west, the coronavirus would spread like wildfire, and would rebound across international borders. Dangerously cramped conditions in multiple internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and detention centres pose a serious risk of contagion. 

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This reality forced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree on March 5 that military actions in the north-west would cease. It was agreed that there would be a de-escalation in Idlib and that the targeting of civilians could not be justified under any pretext.

In the north-west conditions have been drastically deteriorating since December, with high rates of stunting due to child malnutrition, where three out of 10 displaced children under the age of five are stunted. The UN Security Council has taken note of these grave realities, and also called on all parties in Syria to engage through the Constitutional Committee to find a sustainable peace, as there can be no military solution.

The conflict in Syria has now entered its 10th year, having left the country in a desperate situation. Six million Syrians are internally displaced, including one million displaced in the north-west since December 1, and 1.8 million in Damascus and its surrounding areas live in conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to respiratory infections.

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A minimum of 11 million Syrians are requiring humanitarian assistance - including five million children, eight million Syrians have no reliable access to food, and half a million children are malnourished. Conflict has led to price hikes of staple goods, including bread and fuel, which are beyond the reach of many.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock also addressed the UN Security Council this week on the extremely vulnerable situation of civilians in Syria. Reporting on a March 2 mission to Idlib, Lowcock spoke of overcrowding such that some families were forced to take turns sleeping outside. There has been a dramatic rise in child marriage and child labour, recruitment of child soldiers, as well as a rise in domestic violence.

The most urgent challenge in Idlib is that stocks of critical items are almost depleted such as emergency medicine, anaesthetics, and insulin. One primary healthcare centre in Ar-Raqqa may be forced to close, which would be devastating for civilians as it treats 3900 people a month, half of which are children. While the number of aid trucks entering Idlib have doubled compared to last year, it is critical that travel restrictions due to Covid-19 do not reduce the number of deliveries. It is also important that in Idlib and the north-east restrictions are not placed on the movement of humanitarian workers, and on the transport of medical supplies which will save lives.

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Last week Guterres, Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore, and World Health Organisation Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus launched a $2billion (R37.6bn) global humanitarian response plan to fight the coronavirus, including in Syria. “We are only as strong as our weakest health system,” was the message. According to official figures, as of Friday Syria has had 16 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and two deaths, but the actual numbers may be far higher due to a lack of testing. The spread of the coronavirus would have a devastating impact on the country due to the high number of vulnerable communities.

The entire country’s health system remains extremely fragile, and only half the hospitals and primary healthcare centres were fully functional at the end of last year. The UN has actively been supporting surveillance and early warning systems, and has assisted in the rehabilitation of the Central Public Health laboratory, and the upgrading of isolation units. But there remains the seemingly insurmountable challenge that isolation will be difficult in areas of displacement, high-population density, and where there are low levels of sanitation services. As in many other countries, there is also the very real challenge of getting critical supplies, including personal protective equipment and ventilators.

Given all these hurdles in the ability of Syrian authorities to curb the spread of Covid-19, the UN Secretary General’s appeal for the waiving of sanctions is particularly important, as sanctions generally undermine the ability of governments to respond to the pandemic.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon, numbering between one and 1.5million, are also at high risk, and continue to suffer discrimination by Lebanese municipalities. Most are without hand sanitisers and access to basic medical supplies. 

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has begun to undertake awareness campaigns in several refugee settlements where Oxfam has found minimal awareness of how Covid-19 spreads, or what preventative measures can be taken. 

As Human Rights Watch has noted, “An outbreak among the refugee community, particularly in very densely populated informal tented settlements will not be limited to refugees. It will very quickly spread to host communities and undermine the country’s response effort.”

It is important for the Lebanese government to take particular note of the warning issued by Guterres that “the virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith. It attacks all, relentlessly”. This is also a message that world leaders should take heed of with particular reference to Syria. 

If the coronavirus gains a foothold in Syria and spreads uncontrollably, it could be the cause of new waves of infections in Turkey, Europe and the rest of the world.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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