Coronavirus: Covid-19 could cause upheaval across Mid-East in region lacking food, water

Volunteers deliver aid to displaced Syrians near the town of Deir al-Ballut in Syria's Afrin region, on April 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (REUTERS) - Coronavirus outbreaks across the Middle East threaten to shatter the lives of millions of already destitute people in conflict zones, and could fuel socio-economic upheaval, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday (April 16).

Curfews and lockdowns imposed as public health measures to stem spread of the virus are already making it difficult or impossible for many to provide for their families, it said.

The Geneva-based agency called for authorities in the volatile region to prepare for a "potentially devastating aftermath" and a "socio-economic earthquake".

"The Middle East is today facing the twin threats of potential mass virus outbreaks in conflict zones and looming socio-economic upheaval. Both crises could have severe humanitarian consequences," Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC director for the Near and Middle East, said in the statement.

In an interview, he told Reuters that the aftermath of the epidemic could be worse than the disease itself, "because on top of the conflict, on top of the violence, they will have to deal with the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. And it's really scary," he said at a largely empty ICRC headquarters.

Millions already lack health care, food, water and electricity in conflict-hit countries where prices are rising and infrastructure damaged, the ICRC said.

Millions of Syrians displaced in their homeland and refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are especially vulnerable, as are people in Yemen, where a Saudi-backed coalition has declared a ceasefire in a five-year old conflict.

Mr Carboni said that the ICRC had provided its first hygiene kits and protective material for 10 central prisons in Syria that are run by the interior ministry.

Overcrowding and conditions would make it hard to contain any outbreaks, he said. "We are in dialogue with authorities to expand the support to all places of detention."

Throughout Syria's conflict now in its 10th year, health infrastructure and personnel have been "deliberated targeted", which "weakens the collective response" to Covid-19, he said.

"Water projects need to function, pumping stations just can't stop functioning. Millions of Syrians are totally dependent on food distribution, you can't stop this," Mr Carboni added.

"It is true in Syria but it's true in many countries affected by conflict, you need to work on both sides - the Covid emergency and the humanitarian assistance."

Protective equipment including disinfectant has also been donated to health facilities and places of detention across Iraq, the statement said.

In Yemen, where fighting between a Saudi-backed government and the Houthis who control the capital has driven millions of people to the brink of starvation, the ICRC said: "Our life-saving support to hospitals, clinics and dialysis centres now includes help with their Covid-19 prevention preparations."

Half of Yemen's health facilities are out of order and frontlines hamper movement, especially near Marib where there is "very active violence and conflict," Mr Carboni said.

The ICRC was not able to supply intensive care units or ventilators in Yemen, he said, noting that even facilities in the West struggle in outbreaks when they are available.

The ICRC regional budget this year is 565.5 million Swiss francs (S$835 million), more than a third for Syria.

The worst coronavirus outbreak so far in the Middle East is in Iran. The ICRC has donated around US$500,000 (S$714,000) to the Iranian Red Crescent but has a comparatively small role there, a country with no conflict or major refugee crisis.

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