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Coronavirus: Leaked letter says over 200 UN staff in Syria have contracted Covid-19

Independent sources say scores of medical workers have died in recent weeks, increasing fears that Damascus is covering up true scale of pandemic
Syrians in the northeast city of Qamishli ride a motorbike past a mural bearing instructions on protection from Covid-19, on 16 August 2020 (AFP)

More than 200 United Nations staff members have contracted Covid-19 in Syria, as the global body stepped up its contingency plans to combat the fast spread of the pandemic in the country, medical workers and UN officials have said.

The UN's resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Imran Riza, told UN heads of agencies in a letter to distribute to staff that the UN was in the final stages of securing a medical facility for the treatment of cases.

"More than two hundred cases have been reported among UN staff members, some of whom have been hospitalised and three who were medically evacuated," Riza said in the letter, which was leaked to Reuters from an infected local staff member.

Humanitarian workers and medics said the real number of cases was considerably higher, including the hundreds of staff employed by NGO partners working for the dozen UN agencies that oversee the country's largest humanitarian relief operations.

UN expresses concern over 'widespread' Covid-19 transmission in Syria
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Riza said there had been a 10-fold spike in infections in Syria in the two months since he had last briefed staff, referring to health ministry figures that said there had been 3,171 cases and 134 deaths since the first case had been reported on 23 March.

"The epidemiological situation across the country has changed considerably," Riza said.

Damascus-based medics and relief workers are sceptical of official figures, saying that the authorities were covering up. The authorities deny that, but admit that testing is limited.

The UN has expressed concern about the spread of the coronavirus in a country where the health infrastructure has been shattered by war and medical supplies are limited.

Independent medics and relief workers say scores of doctors and medical workers have died in recent weeks.

Witnesses and cemetery officials said there had been a tripling of burials since July in a cemetery south of Damascus, the Syrian capital, where NGOs and medics said most cases were concentrated. 

The United Nations fears a lack of testing may be masking the real extent of a "widespread" coronavirus outbreak in war-torn Syria, where a struggling health-care system faces increasing pressure. 

Actual cases 'far exceed official figures'

During a UN Security Council (UNSC) briefing in late August, Ramesh Rajasingham, the UN's deputy emergency relief coordinator, had warned that Syria's then reported 2,500 cases of Covid-19 and 98 deaths may be much higher. 

Health-care facilities were filing an above-average number of death notices and burials had been on the increase, indicating to Rajasingham that the actual number of cases in the country "far exceed official figures" confirmed by the government. 

In addition, the majority of cases that had been confirmed as coronavirus transmissions had not been traced back to a known source, making mitigation efforts even more difficult, Rajasingham had said.