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Millions at risk from Covid surge in Syria amid test and oxygen shortages 

Aid agencies and the UN have warned that a “rapid and accelerating” wave of coronavirus and shortages of equipment such as tests and oxygen is putting millions of people across conflict-ravaged Syria at risk from the virus.

While the official Covid-19 death toll in Syria is low compared with other parts of the Middle East, credible data collection is almost impossible, and the country is vulnerable: 10 years of war have devastated the infrastructure, economy and healthcare systems.

About 90% of Syrians across regime, rebel and Kurdish-held areas now live in poverty. More than a year into the global crisis, testing facilities in the country are still almost nonexistent, making it impossible for healthcare workers to assess the true impact of the disease – or contain it.

In the north-east of the country, which is controlled by Kurdish-led forces, the only Covid-19 laboratory is likely to run out of testing kits in the next seven days, while new cases are surging. More than 5,300 cases have been confirmed in the area in April alone, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – more than half of the total for the whole of 2020. Currently, more than 47% of tests are coming back positive.

Seven UN and NGO-funded treatment facilities have been forced to close due to a lack of funding: several of those that remain are reaching capacity, and oxygen supplies are beginning to run out.

“Currently, 83% of patients who receive invasive ventilation in the region are not surviving and we fear that things will only get worse,” said Misty Buswell, IRC’s policy and advocacy director for the region. “The health system is struggling to cope, and the situation is deteriorating extremely rapidly.”

According to Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN’s humanitarian affairs office, the number of new cases in parts of Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s government doubled between February and March, and intensive care units in the capital, Damascus, are also now full.

Rebel and Islamist-controlled north-west Syria received the country’s first shipment of coronavirus vaccines last week under the UN’s Covax programme, and the vaccination campaign using 53,800 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to begin early next month.

Both Damascus and the north-east are also expected to receive UN vaccine supplies, although no dates have yet been announced. Vaccinations for health workers have already started in government-controlled areas, but not with Covax doses.

For now, demand for vaccines far outstrips supply: in Idlib and the surrounding area alone, 3 million residents live in dire humanitarian conditions, and social distancing and other measures to contain the disease are hard to implement.

Further vaccine shipments for the rebel enclave are also far from certain. Last year, Russia and China used their UN security council vetoes to shut one of just two remaining border aid crossings from Turkey. The next vote, on whether to keep the final cross-border point open, is due in July.

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