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Coronavirus pandemic sparks fears in Syria's besieged Rukban camp

Around 12,000 live in abysmal conditions in the isolated Rukban camp [AFP]

Date of publication: 23 March, 2020

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The Rukban refugee camp has been under siege for more than a year, with residents starved of necessary medicine and food.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated fears over the health of pregnant women and others in Syria's isolated Rukban refugee camp, with activists urging the United Nations to provide medical aid in the event of an outbreak.

Activists have previously raised the alarm of the lack of medical equipment and medicine in the desert camp, which they say poses a threat to pregnant women in particular.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted neighbouring Jordan to shut down a UNICEF-run medical centre, where residents of the camp could receive basic treatment, activists told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site.

Jordan also imposed a nationwide lockdown to counter the spread of the virus on Saturday.

Around 12,000 displaced people remain in Al-Rukban camp, which is located near the Jordanian border in the isolated de-escalation zone established around Al-Tanf, after thousands fled to regime-held areas last year. 

The camp has been under siege by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally for more than a year, making the import of crucial food and medicine near impossible and forcing residents to smuggle in alternatives.

The closure of the UNICEF medical centre by Jordan has exacerbated fears about the health of pregnant women, particularly those who may require a C-section - a surgery which would be impossible to do in Rukban.

"Yesterday, one of the pregnant women in the camp told me she would prefer to die before her due date comes," Omar Al-Homsi told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site.

"The humanitarian situation in the camp is very bad right now," said Homsi, a media activist.


There are at least nine pregnant women in the camp approaching their due date and in need of a C-section, a camp official said.

The Rukban camp's political committee has urged the UN to act and help relieve the abysmal conditions in the camp, preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"We're asking you to provide sterilisation equipment and means of isolation such as tents and masks. We don't even have a temperature detector," the committee said.

"We hope this world has a degree of responsibility and humanity."

Fears in Idlib

On Sunday, Syrian regime authorities announced the country's first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus amid rumours of a more widespread outbreak in the country.

Testing for the virus is due to start within days in opposition northwest Syria, the World Health Organisation said on Monday, amid fears of a disaster if the pandemic reached overcrowded displacement camps.

Some 3 million people are trapped in the rebel enclave of Idlib in the country's northwest, where infections have yet to be detected but fears are rife as basic hygience is lacking in the tent camps and makeshift housing along the Turkish border.

Read more: Syria Weekly: Activists claim the regime is embarking on a major coronavirus cover-up

Of those residents, around one million have been displaced since December as the last major opposition bastion has been battered by a regime offensive.

Around 300 COVID-19 testing kits are to be delivered to a laboratory in Idlib city on Wednesday and "testing should start shortly afterwards", WHO spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson said.

An additional 2,000 tests would be delivered as soon as possible, he added. 

As part of a wider response plan for the region, three hospitals with intensive care units have been modified as isolation units with ventilators, Halldorsson explained.

Up to 1,000 healthcare workers have been mobilised and a new delivery of protective gear - including 10,000 surgical masks and 500 respirator masks - should arrive within the week.

"WHO is extremely concerned about the impact COVID-19 may have in the northwest," Halldorsson said.

"Displaced people [there] live under conditions that make them vulnerable to respiratory infections," he told AFP.

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