Since March 2011, the war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives and displaced almost 6.5 million people. The ongoing conflict has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.
The coronavirus alone adds a new layer of potential threat to thousands of displaced Syrians.
Between February 1 and March 31, 2020, 312 civilians were killed as a result of aerial bombardment, improvised explosive (IED) detonations, and targeted killings from all opposing parties, according to reports the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Among the parties to the conflict is the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran who vie for power and control with various rebel groups.
An unprecedented number of internally displaced people gather in the north-western province of Idlib, the last major rebel-controlled city in the northwest and a possible border post to reach Turkey. The region, with nearly 4.5 million displaced people, remains under the control of the militant group Tahrir al-Sham.
Such concentration of internally displaced persons raised concern in the international community that this community, which already lives in the most adverse conditions, is seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the March 6 agreement between Russia and Turkey to limit the bombings of Idlib, the humanitarian situation remains alarming. No air strikes have been reported since the day of the ceasefire, but intermittent shelling continued by regime forces.
Despite the fact that they are prohibited by international law, indiscriminate attacks against civilians continue, including large-scale terrorist attacks. During February, numerous attacks took place in kindergartens and schools of Idlib, in which at least seven teachers and ten children died, according to the United Nations. The Feb. 10, one child died and two were wounded in a bombardment of an Idlib camp.
Meanwhile, the potential threat of the coronavirus spreading in an already weakened region begins to emerge. Since May 3, 45 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Syria, mainly in the government-controlled provinces. However, until then, no cases had been reported in Idlib.
A critical humanitarian situation
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since December 2019, when hostilities intensified with repeated attacks on Idlib from Russia and the Syrian Government, 846,000 people were displaced and continue in these conditions, and half were displaced to Idlib only in February 2020. 60% of those displaced are children.
Conflicts in Idlib province displaced huge numbers of civilians in appalling conditions. It is estimated that, by escaping on foot or by truck in very cold weather, many babies and children died every day. Once in Idlib, some only found refuge in open spaces under trees or in the streets.
Food prices are rising, and access to food remains difficult. Malnutrition rates among pregnant and lactating women are devastating: One in five suffers from acute malnutrition, compared to the ratio of 1 to 20 in 2019. An increase in the rate of stunting of children under the age of 20 has also been reported. 5 years at Idlib.
Coronavirus and lack of resources could worsen this situation and reduce humanitarian access. Experts estimate that the number of people needing humanitarian aid will double and reach 265 million by the end of this year, especially in conflict areas like Idlib.
Abdulrahman Muhajir, IDP from Homs, said:
Now, we are suffering from expensive prices, we are suffering from this epidemic, and we are suffering from a thousand things and no one is helping you with anything.
Now we suffer the rise in prices, we suffer the epidemic and we suffer thousands of things, and nobody helps you with anything.
The COVID-19 crisis
In order to prevent possible contagion in Idlib, a laboratory initiated testing procedures. The World Health Organization also procured additional respirators. Health infrastructure and trained personnel are often scarce in conflict zones. Between 2011 and 2019, more than 900 medical professionals died in Syria, and many others fled.
Still, medical professionals in Idlib do what they can to prepare the region's hospitals for possible cases of COVID-19:
Hospital in #Idlib being sanitized by the @SyriaCivilDef to prevent the spread of # COVID19 (left) versus ‘hospital’ in an area terrorized by #Assad, who has been receiving billions of #A donor money for years. pic.twitter.com/nEpXFzrF5u
– Simona Jeger (@simonajeger) April 5, 2020
Take a look at the state of a hospital bed in Assad's homeland. This did not start or happen because of the revolution or the sanctions. This is what is obtained after 50 years of acute corruption and a Government that does not represent or care about its people.
Syrian Civil Defense sanitizes hospital in Idlib to prevent spread of covid-19 (left) versus “hospital” in an area terrorized by Assad, which has received billions in donations from the United Nations.
IDP camps are a reason for concern about possible contagion. After the first death from COVID-19 was reported in northeast Syria, the Kurdish authorities controlling the area installed an exclusive hospital, and the Idlib authorities hope to do the same.
In Rukban, a refugee camp near the border with Jordan, the arrival of the coronavirus could be a catastrophe, a midwife from the camp reports:
We don't have the right medicine or the appropriate place to quarantine the patients, There is nothing we could offer to them.
We do not have the necessary medications or adequate space for the quarantine of patients. We would have no way to help them.
The camp organized an awareness campaign to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and United Nations authorities seek to implement diagnostic supplies. However, mainly in areas controlled by the Government, the possibilities of access to internally displaced persons are limited.
The last time a humanitarian aid convoy arrived in the field was in May 2019. In these terrible living conditions, dozens of children died of hypothermia that year. Humanitarian aid has not been redoubled, and there is no expectation that aid will come from the Jordanian government or the Syrian Assad regime.
Over the past few weeks, a planned humanitarian mission by the United Nations and the Syrian Red Crescent was suspended due to disagreement.
And now that?
James Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Syria, said there was an agreement between Russia and Turkey to open up the possibility of dialogue in Idlib.
However, according to the turkish president Recep Tayyip ErdoğanThe Syrian regime is now using the media's attention to the COVID-19 pandemic to escalate violence and violate the March 6 ceasefire without attracting attention. Recently, a exchange of shots in Idlib between the Syrian and Turkish forces.
Despite current restrictions, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) managed to send more aid to Idlib in March than at any time in 2014, and reported less military activity in the area.
In January 2020, Resolution 2504 voted by the United Nations Security Council extended the “authorization for the delivery of cross-border aid” to Syria until July 10. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, recently reminded the Syrian Government that, since 2012, by OCHA resolutions S-18/1 and 19/22, it should allow the United Nations presence in the field to protect human rights. .
However, after nine years, this has yet to be implemented.
The window of opportunity to avoid a more serious humanitarian crisis from COVID-19 is now, but it will be closed very soon. The international community should spare no effort to protect affected civilians who experience insecurity and death on a daily basis.