Authorities in April recorded more than 5,300 new infections — or more than a third of the region’s total case count since the pandemic began. But because testing capacity is severely limited, most cases are going largely undetected, according to humanitarian groups operating in the area.
One laboratory is able to process PCR tests for coronavirus in the administrative capital Qamishli, and Doctors Without Borders warned this week that it will soon run out of supplies.
The pathogen’s spread also has threatened the tens of thousands of displaced people still living in squalid camps in the area, where the United Nations says that even access to water and sanitation is scarce.
“It is shocking that one year into the outbreak, the region of [northeast Syria] still struggles to find the essential COVID-19 supplies,” said Crystal Van Leeuwen, the Syria medical emergency manager for Doctors Without Borders, or MSF.
“There is a clear lack of laboratory testing, inadequate hospital capacity to manage patients, not enough oxygen to support those who need it most and limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers,” she said in a statement this week. “The COVID-19 response in northeast Syria is insufficient and people continue to unnecessarily die from this disease.”
As of April 26, the last day for which reliable coronavirus figures were available, northeast Syria had recorded more than 15,500 coronavirus cases and 640 deaths, according to MSF and the London-based International Rescue Committee. While the region’s population is in flux, it is home to about 3 million to 4 million people, including thousands of families displaced by war.
But late last month, at least 46 percent of local coronavirus tests were positive, the two aid agencies said, including confirmed cases of a more contagious variant first discovered in Britain.
Seven testing facilities were forced to close in March as resources dried up, the IRC said. Both aid groups warned that mortality and hospitalization rates were rising as treatment centers in places such as Raqqa, the former Islamic State capital still ravaged by war, have shut their doors.
In oil-rich Deir al-Zour, a restive province bordering Iraq, “there is now an acute shortage of oxygen,” the IRC said last week, adding that at least one hospital there may also be forced to close.
“The health system is struggling to cope, and the situation is deteriorating extremely rapidly,” said Misty Buswell, the IRC’s policy and advocacy director in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Currently, 83 percent of patients who receive invasive ventilation in the region are not surviving and we fear that things will only get worse,” she said. “Treatment facilities are being forced to close due to a lack of funding, oxygen is beginning to run out, and covid cases are reaching the highest levels seen to date.”
Kurdish authorities last month imposed a regionwide shutdown, but aid workers say that in overcrowded camps, social distancing is nearly impossible, and growing insecurity is making the situation worse. New coronavirus cases have emerged in at least two sprawling camps in recent weeks, including al-Hol, which is the largest.
A fire last month at an electricity station has for weeks disrupted the water supply to al-Hol and the neighboring city of al-Hasaka, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Deadly skirmishes between residents and security forces at al-Hol have also resulted in the suspension of some humanitarian operations, Mark Lowcock, the United Nations’ senior relief official, told a Security Council briefing last week. In Deir al-Zour, two aid workers were killed in April, he said.
The region’s volatile and complex politics — where few recognize the Kurdish administration, but the territory remains outside government control — have also helped hinder the pandemic response.
The U.N. lacks the authorization to deliver aid to northeast Syria from neighboring Turkey or Iraq, and instead must go through the central government in Damascus, which aid agencies say often refuses access.
As a result, no coronavirus vaccine doses from the U.N.-backed COVAX program, which seeks the equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide, have arrived in northeast Syria.
Authorities there say they have been promised 20,000 to 100,000 doses from Damascus, which has also received vaccine shipments from China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
UAE authorities said Wednesday that they had sent a fourth tranche of medical aid to Damascus, including “significant quantities” of coronavirus vaccine doses.
“With these minimal commitments and lack of clear planning, we are seriously concerned that significant COVID-19 vaccination activities are unlikely to take place in the region anytime soon,” MSF’s Van Leeuwen said.
“The allocation of vaccine and other essential supplies has proven to be inequitable across the different regions of the country, showing that once again the humanitarian aid response in northeastern Syria is being negatively impacted by regional politics,” she said.