Syria's 10 confirmed coronavirus cases are the “tip of the iceberg”, the United Nations' top aid official said on Monday as he called for an immediate ceasefire.
The UN call undermines the Syrian government's claim that there was no significant virus outbreak in the country. It reported the first death from the virus in its territory on Sunday, about a week after announcing its first confirmed case.
Officials deny a cover-up but have imposed a lockdown and have taken drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus, including a nationwide night curfew.
“The virus has the potential to have a devastating impact on vulnerable communities across the country. Syria’s health services are extremely fragile,” Mark Lowcock, the UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said during a teleconference.
Only about half of Syria’s hospitals and primary healthcare centres were fully functional at the end of last year, Mr Lowcock said.
He said the country’s shattered heath system was severely lacking in protective equipment and ventilators to deal with the potential increase in cases.
Poor levels of sanitation and high populations in displacement areas will make it difficult to implement self-isolation and protective measures, he said.
“The pandemic is already further restricting our ability to access affected communities. Airport and border closures, including in the north-east, along with other movement restrictions add to the long-standing difficulties humanitarian staff face in travelling to where they are needed,” Mr Lowcock said.
These conditions have left the UN with no other choice but to call for “a complete and immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all-out effort to suppress Covid-19”.
It is clear that this crisis can only be overcome by a truly global response, he said.
The World Health Organisation has warned that Syria has a limited capacity to deal with a rapid spread of the virus.
Syria's bloody civil war entered its tenth year in March.
“Over half the population has been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people inside Syria require humanitarian assistance, including nearly 5 million children,” Mr Lowcock said.
“Nearly eight million people do not have reliable access to food. This number has increased by more than 20 per cent since last year,” he said.
Half a million children in Syria are chronically malnourished, he said.
Last week the UN launched an appeal for $2 billion to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 35,000 people out of nearly 750,000 infected.
UN officials including Mr Lowcock called on the world to fund defences against the virus, but also called for the continuation of humanitarian funding to prevent states such as Syria from becoming even more vulnerable to the disease.