More COVID-19 cases in Syria’s overcrowded rebel enclave

BEIRUT (AP) — At least two doctors in Syria’s opposition-held northwest have been infected with the coronavirus, a monitoring group reported Saturday, the latest confirmed cases in the overcrowded rebel enclave.

The new infections raise the number of confirmed cases to three in the area, where health care facilities have been devastated by years of civil war, and where testing has been limited due to scarce resources.

Observers fear the virus could spread easily in Idlib province, a concern compounded as Russia, an ally of the Syrian government, moved at the U.N. Security Council to reduce cross-border aid from Turkey.

Aid groups and U,N. agencies say such a reduction would hamper aid delivery of live-saving assistance amid a global pandemic.

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Doctors following up on the cases say testing and contact tracing is underway to attempt to isolate and prevent the spread of the virus. The two new cases have been in contact with the area’s first confirmed case — a doctor who had moved between different hospitals and towns.

“The anticipation is a catastrophic outcome if there is no proper containment of the initial cases or proper isolation,” said Naser alMuhawish, of the Early Warning and Alert Response Network that carries out testing and monitoring of the virus. “Don’t forget we are in a conflict zone. So doctors are already scarce and need to move between more than one place.”

The first case was reported Thursday and the hospital where the doctor works has since suspended its operations and quarantined patients and support staff to carry out testing. Meanwhile, hospitals in northwest Syria announced Friday they would be suspending non-emergency procedures and outpatient services for at least one week. Schools were to shut down until further notice. Before the confirmed cases, there had been only about 2,000 people tested for the virus.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council remained deadlocked over renewing the mandate for cross-border aid delivery. Russia is seeking to shut down at least one border crossing between the rebel-held enclave and Turkey, arguing that aid should be delivered from within Syria across conflict lines.

But the U.N. and humanitarian groups say aid for nearly 3 million needy people in the northwest can’t be brought in that way.

A divided Security Council failed for a second time Friday to agree on extending humanitarian aid deliveries to the area from Turkey as the current U.N. mandate to do so ended.

Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution backed by the 13 other council members that would have maintained two crossing points from Turkey for six months. A Russian-drafted resolution that would have authorized just one border crossing in the area for a year failed to receive the minimum nine “yes” votes in the 15-member council.

A new vote was expected Saturday. Germany and Belgium, who insist two crossings are critical, especially with the first COVID-19 cases being reported in Syria’s northwest, circulated a new text that would extend the mandate through the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Idlib for a year. The mandate for the Bab al-Salam crossing — which Russia wants to eliminate — would be for three months to wind down its activities.

Kevin Kennedy, the U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syrian conflict, told The Associated Press that leaving only one crossing open would make aid delivery more time-consuming, more costly and more dangerous in a territory controlled by different armed groups. He said more access, not less, is needed and urged leaving the aid pipeline out of political considerations.

“We have taken a lot of measures, provided lots of equipment, but in an area with overcrowding, with 2.7 million displaced people, social distancing is hard,” he said late Friday. “The health infrastructure is weak, many (hospitals) have been bombed or destroyed, health officials have left the country or been killed in the fighting. So the situation is ripe for more problems should Covid-19 spread.”

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