NEW YORK - The United Nation's top envoy for Syria warned Monday that the coronavirus could be a new "calamity" for the war-torn country and that a nationwide cease-fire must be implemented immediately.
"COVID-19 is an enormous threat to Syrians, and it demands a complete shift in mindset from all now," Special Envoy Geir Pedersen told the U.N. Security Council in a virtual meeting. "This common threat must now focus all with new consciousness and new determination on a common agenda to save the Syrian people from a new calamity."
Syria has officially confirmed 10 cases of the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus and one death. There is no data available on how widely or whether the government is testing people.
"This virus does not care if you live in government-controlled areas or outside," Pedersen said. "It does not discriminate. It endangers all Syrians."
Syria entered its 10th year of war this month.
The envoy said there is a high risk that authorities will be unable to contain the pandemic, due to high levels of population movements and overcrowding in displaced persons camps and detention facilities. There is also a severe shortage of health professionals and the necessary medical equipment and supplies, such as ventilators and protective masks.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told council members that given the virus's trajectory in other countries, Syria's 10 reported cases are only "the tip of the iceberg."
"The virus has the potential to have a devastating impact on vulnerable communities across the country," Lowcock warned. "Syria's health services are extremely fragile. Only around half of its hospitals and primary health care centers were fully functional at the end of last year."
He reiterated a call last week by the secretary-general for countries to waive sanctions that can impede the response to the pandemic.
Further compounding any virus response was the closure in January of a border crossing from Iraq into northeastern Syria that was used to bring in medical supplies. The U.N. Security Council was forced by Russia and China to end its authorization of Al Yarubiya crossing, because the Damascus government did not want aid to reach rebels in the area.
"Many medical facilities and individuals in northeast Syria who depended on medical supplies via Al Yarubiya have not received these supplies through alternative channels," Lowcock said.