September 17, 2020

Syria: Health Workers Lack Protection in Pandemic

Syria is failing to protect health workers at the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic in the territory.

Doctors, aid workers, and civilians in Syria said that the country is overwhelmed, with hospitals beyond capacity, health workers facing serious shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and with many of their colleagues and relatives dying after suffering Covid-19 symptoms. The Health Ministry said that 76 health workers had tested positive for the virus as of the end of August. A total of 2,765 confirmed cases and 112 related deaths were reported. However, evidence suggests that the numbers across the country could be significantly higher.

It is bewildering that as the obituaries for doctors and nurses responding to the Covid-19 pandemic pile up, official numbers tell a story at odds with the reality on the ground. Lack of aid for the health of its front-line workers during a global pandemic is sadly no surprise.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three doctors, one nurse, two aid workers, and two experts, reviewed social media posts by people or pages considered reliable sources, and collected reporting by reliable third parties to assess discrepancies in the Syrian government’s reporting on its own response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those interviewed said that shortages of adequate protective equipment and restricted access to oxygen tanks are most likely contributing to deaths among Syria’s health workers and the wider population. Health workers said that testing, oxygen, and basic medical care are available only to those who can afford it, violating the fundamental right to equal and affordable access to health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations with a health mandate should publicly insist on expanding testing capacities and transparent and accurate reporting on numbers of Covid-19 cases and equitable distribution of sufficient personal protective equipment to health workers throughout the country, including rural areas.

Residents said their neighbors and relatives were falling ill or dying after exhibiting symptoms consistent with Covid-19, including high fever and severe respiratory distress. They said that their relatives who had attempted to go to a hospital or clinic were turned away for lack of capacity.

Nurses, doctors, and aid workers who work in hospitals or support their operation from outside Syria said that major hospitals that are prepared to deal with Covid-19 cases have exceeded their capacity, and other hospitals do not have the necessary infrastructure, citing a lack of availability of oxygen canisters, ventilators, and beds. Front-line workers said they do not have the necessary protective equipment, training, or protocols to treat complications from Covid-19.

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