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Coronavirus: WHO says testing to start within days in Syria's Idlib

UN body says up to 1,000 health workers have been mobilised and a new delivery of protective gear is on the way to Idlib
A large number of people continue to live in tented camps and makeshift housing along the Turkish border (AFP)

Testing for the coronavirus is to start within days in northwest Syria, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said, amid fears of a disaster if the pandemic reached overcrowded displacement camps.

Home to some three million people, the rebel-held region of Idlib has yet to record a single Covid-19 case, but conditions in the country's last major rebel bastion are especially "ripe" for an outbreak, aid groups have warned. 

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In the latest wave of displacement, nearly one million people in the northwest have been forced from their homes by a blistering regime offensive, which has slowed since a ceasefire went into effect this month. 

But a large number of people continue to live in tented camps and makeshift housing along the Turkish border, where basic hygiene is lacking.

This has prompted deep concern after the government in Damascus on Sunday announced the country's first official Covid-19 case.

Protective gear on the way

"Testing will be available in Idlib in two days," WHO spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson said on Monday.

Some 300 Covid-19 diagnostic kits are to be delivered to a laboratory in Idlib city on Wednesday and "testing should start shortly afterwards", he said.

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

Technicians in Idlib have been trained to use the kits and laboratories in neighbouring Turkey would also be on standby to help if needed.

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

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.

'Extremely concerned'

So far, three suspected cases in northwest Syria have tested negative after hospitals sent samples to Turkey, Halldorsson said, but concern remained high.

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

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

Those included overcrowded living conditions, physical and mental stress, as well as a lack of housing, food and clean water.

Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee said on Monday that deplorable living conditions in Idlib had "already left hundreds of thousands of people in poor health, making them even more vulnerable". 

"It is possible that the disease is already making its way through the population" in Idlib, she said in a statement.

Eighty-five attacks on health facilities last year make the region all the more vulnerable, she warned.

"The majority of hospitals that remain open are unable to cope with needs that already exist," Buswell said.

Prayer gatherings suspended

Syria's war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions and ravaged the country's infrastructure since starting in 2011 with anti-government protests.

Late last year, less than two-thirds of the country's hospitals were functioning, while 70 percent of health workers had fled the country, WHO says.

Over the past week, the Damascus authorities have taken increased measures to stem the spread of the virus.

Schools, universities and restaurants have been closed and prayer gatherings suspended.

Travellers from affected countries are banned from entering the country and the land border has been closed with Lebanon, where 304 people are infected and four have died from the virus.

The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have not recorded any deaths so far, but have imposed a curfew in a bid to stem any outbreak.