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Kurdish Officials Demand Help With Looming COVID 'Catastrophe' in NE Syria

FILE - Children cross a street in front of a mural raising coronavirus awareness, in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli, March 9, 2021.

Kurdish officials in northeast Syria are expressing concerns over a sharp increase in coronavirus cases in their region, calling on international health organizations to intervene to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

A 10-day curfew went into effect Tuesday in an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly virus in the semiautonomous region, which is home to nearly 5 million people, including thousands of internally displaced people, refugees and prisoners of the Islamic State (IS) terror group, also known as ISIS or its Arabic acronym, Daesh.

“The situation is getting out of control,” said Jowan Mustafa, co-chair of the Health Department at the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES), a governing body affiliated with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“In the past few weeks, we have witnessed a growing rate of COVID-19 cases in our region,” he told VOA by phone. “We need immediate assistance from international health organizations to stop a potential humanitarian catastrophe.”

On Wednesday alone, 248 new cases and five deaths were reported, bringing the total number of coronavirus infections in northeast Syria to 13,004, including 437 deaths.

Local health officials said the actual number of those infected with the virus could be much higher.

“Our testing capacity is very limited, and our hospitals and health facilities are overwhelmed,” said Mustafa, adding that “many people carrying the virus are staying at home without reporting to us.”

Al-Hol camp

One in four COVID-19-related deaths confirmed on Tuesday occurred in al-Hol camp, where over 60,000 people reside, including thousands of families of IS foreign fighters.

Sheikhmous Ahmed, head of the Refugee Affairs Office at the AANES, said overpopulation and poor health infrastructure make camp residents more susceptible to the coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, the viral strain that causes COVID-19.

“Given the current high number of COVID cases outside the camp, its spread could be much more rapid inside the camp,” Ahmed told VOA.

He said medical teams at al-Hol don’t have enough resources to contain a sudden outbreak of the virus.

FILE - A member of Kurdish internal security stands guard at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, in northeastern Syria, Jan. 28, 2021.
FILE - A member of Kurdish internal security stands guard at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, in northeastern Syria, Jan. 28, 2021.

Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, said “in Syria, where over half the population has been displaced and tens of thousands remain in IDP camps in the northeast, the pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll.”

“This includes prisons holding ISIS fighters, their families and other detainees creating a crisis within a crisis,” he said.

In addition to those held in al-Hol and other detention camps, the SDF says it holds more than 10,000 IS fighters, including about 2,000 foreign nationals.

“Amnesty International has profound concerns for the well-being of those held in detention, and for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs scattered across Syria and the region,” Nassif told VOA. “The world needs an urgent plan to help these vulnerable populations get vaccinated immediately.”

Call for help

Mustafa of AANES said the organization has reached out to international health bodies, including the World Health Organization, to take immediate action in this part of the war-ravaged country.

“The WHO has said it would deliver a small number of vaccines to northeast Syria in April, but even that hasn’t happened yet,” he said, noting that “if we don’t receive immediate assistance from the WHO, then other non-governmental health groups should step in to help us stop this crisis.”

WHO said last month it will run a coronavirus vaccination campaign in Syria, with the goal of inoculating 20% of the country’s population by the end of 2021.

WHO representative to Syria Akjemal Magtymova recently said only one of 16 public hospitals in the region is fully functioning, and three are partially functioning.

“It is a massive challenge to ensure the adequate number of hospital beds in intensive care units, in the wake of the third wave of COVID-19 in Syria,” she said in a statement, noting that “access to COVID-19 vaccines to reduce ongoing transmission is yet another mammoth task for Syria.”