A disinfection operation at a camp for displaced people in Idlib, Syria | Photo: EPA/Yahya Nemah
A disinfection operation at a camp for displaced people in Idlib, Syria | Photo: EPA/Yahya Nemah

Human Rights Watch is calling for the COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed equitably in all of Syria. The organization accused the Assad regime of withholding medicine from civilians in areas controlled by the opposition. They are particularly worried about the situation in northeast Syria.

Human Rights Watch released a statement on Tuesday voicing concern that vulnerable people in opposition-held territories in Syria might not get access to the vaccine against the novel coronavirus. They said that the Syrian government had repeatedly withheld vital food and medicine from areas controlled by political opponents, which had affected millions of civilians.

Syrian regime withholding medicine

"The Syrian government has never been shy about withholding health care as a weapon of war but playing this game with the vaccine undermines the global effort to control the pandemic," HRW's Syria expert Sara Kayyali was quoted as saying. "Those supplying vaccines for Syria should do everything in their power to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines reach those most vulnerable no matter where they are in the country."

Human Rights Watch said that it had also documented "the discriminatory distribution of COVID-19-related equipment, including personal protective equipment, testing kits, ad oxygen ventilators" in areas controlled by the regime. Humanitarian organizations should thus monitor the distribution of healthcare items, including the vaccine, to ensure equitable distribution, HRW said.

Worry about civilians northeast Syria

Human Rights Watch is particularly worried about the situation in northeastern Syria. Their statement said that "the UN Security Council’s failure to maintain a cross-border aid system for northeast Syria also means there is no guaranteed channel for vaccine distribution for two million people living there."

According to Human Rights Watch, the Assad regime recently approved joining the COVAX system. COVAX has been set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure the worldwide distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine -- especially in disadvantaged countries.

Governing authorities in most of northwest Syria reportedly told HRW that they have also submitted request to receive the vaccine through the COVAX program, independently from the Damascus government. Authorities in northeast Syria, however, have no made no such arrangements to obtain vaccines, HRW said in its statement.

If northeast Syria does not receive vaccines through the regime's COVAX plan, however, the region could potentially received vaccines through "humanitarian buffer for those left out of national plans," aid agencies told HRW.

Demand equitable vaccine distribution

In their statement, HRW called on the WHO and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to "use their ongoing dialogue with the Syrian government to push for an equitable distribution plan both within areas of government control and areas where other groups maintain effective control."

They also said that it was important to identify neutral vaccine distribution channels in Syria, "since adequate independent monitoring of vaccine supplies and distribution will be difficult."

The war that has been raging in Syria for ten years has led to one of the biggest humanitarian crises worldwide. More than five million people have fled the country, more than six million have been displaced within the country. Many health care facilities have been destroyed or damaged and lack supplies, many healthcare workers have been displaced -- leaving the Syrian healthcare system in shambles.

Tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases

Thus far, there have been over 14,000 cases of COVID-19 recorded in government-held territories in Syria, and over 930 deaths related to the novel coronavirus disease, according the WHO (as of February 5).

In northeast Syria, more than 8,200 cases had been recorded as of January 9, according to the WHO (the latest date for which data was available). On January 26, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA said that close to 21,000 COVID-19 cases had been recorded in northwest Syria. However, the actual numbers are likely much higher, due to a lack in testing.

 

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