Rights group urges fair COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Syria

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Human Rights Watch Tuesday urged support for aid groups to ensure “equitable” distribution of coronavirus vaccines across all of war-torn Syria, warning against any discriminatory approach by Damascus.

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“Those supplying vaccines for Syria should do everything in their power to ensure that... (they) reach those most vulnerable no matter where they are in the country,” HRW researcher Sara Kayyali said.

“The Syrian government has never been shy about withholding healthcare as a weapon of war, but playing this game with the vaccine undermines the global effort to control the pandemic.”

“International aid groups should have support to secure the widest and most equitable distribution... including (in) all areas controlled by different groups,” the rights organization said.

The New York-based group made the call following restrictions to aid deliveries to the country’s opposition-held northwest and Kurdish-held northeast Syria in recent years, under pressure from Damascus’ ally Moscow at the UN Security Council.

Aid can only enter northwest Syria from a single border crossing from Turkey, which backs opposition forces in that area, while aid to northeast Syria now needs to transit through Damascus, where HRW says authorities often withhold or delay permission.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak last year, Syria’s government has recorded 14,096 cases of COVID-19 in areas it controls, including 926 deaths.

In northwest Syria, opposition officials have said 21,006 people caught the virus, of whom 400 died.

In the Kurdish-held northeast, the Kurdish administration has said 8,490 people fell ill with coronavirus, including 296 who died.

But doctors and rights organizations believe the numbers are probably much higher, especially in northeast Syria where HRW said the government has refused to allow the UN to set up COVID-19 testing labs.

Syria’s prime minister last week signed on to the World Health Organization’s Covax initiative, state news agency SANA said.

The health minister last month said the country would not accept the vaccine being procured at the expense of “Syria’s sovereignty”, in what HRW said was likely a sign that northeast Syria was not included in its rollout plan.

Authorities in most of northwest Syria told HRW they had submitted a proposal to Covax for areas under their control.

But northeast Syria had no arrangement to obtain vaccines independently, the rights group said, although civil society organizations could request doses through a Covax humanitarian buffer.

Even in government-held areas, HRW said it was worried about equitable vaccination, after what HRW called earlier discriminatory distribution of COVID-19 protective gear, tests and ventilators.

Beyond these concerns, the country’s war-ravaged electricity network, fuel shortages and depleted medical infrastructure were challenges to distribution and maintaining the vaccines at low temperatures.

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