More than 15 million children and their families in Yemen, Syria and Gaza set to face COVID-19 with fewer than 1,700 ventilators and beds
Fewer than 730 ventilators and 950 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are available for more than 15 million children and their families in areas that are hard for aid agencies to reach in Yemen, northern Syria and Gaza - meaning they are critically underequipped to respond to an outbreak of COVID-19, Save the Children is warning.
The Gaza Strip has been under blockade for 13 years, Syria has just entered its tenth year of conflict - with the Northern front currently the most active - and Yemen is in its sixth year of war. Healthcare systems across all three areas have been decimated, in some cases to the point of paralysis, and do not have nearly enough medical resources to respond to ongoing needs, let alone a global pandemic. As of March 29, Syria had confirmed 9 Covid19 cases and one death, Gaza 9 cases, and Yemen is yet to declare any.
- In North West Syria, there are a total of 153 ventilators and 148 beds in ICU, while nearly a million recently displaced people are living in overcrowded areas. In North East Syria, there are fewer than 30 ICU beds, only ten adult ventilators and just one paediatric ventilator.
- In Gaza, there are 70 ICU beds and 62 ventilators  for 2 million people. It is also one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with a high proportion of the population living in refugee camps with limited access to water and other basic services.
- In Yemen, where only half of the hospitals are still fully functional, there are 700 ICU beds, including 60 for children, and 500 ventilators.
The continued support of humanitarian organisations to people in need is vital to slow the spread of coronavirus in this critical phase, but access to children and their families is often hampered by conflict, movement restrictions and other challenges. Preventive measures such as social distancing and hand washing are difficult if not impossible in overcrowded areas like Gaza and displacement camps in Northern Syria. Water sources are unreliable across all three locations, and shortages can occur daily. In Gaza, 96 percent of the available water is unsuitable for human consumption.
Children in Gaza told Save the Children about their fear. Raafat*, 13, said: ‘What I’m most afraid of is that Gaza is highly populated and doesn’t have enough resources to face the virus.’ Jood, 11, said: ‘This pandemic affects us, because we have to stay home and there is no income for the family.’
In Yemen, Moneer*, 17, from Taiz said: ‘I have heard about Corona. People in my family said that it was very dangerous and we wouldn’t survive it if it came to Yemen. Every day, my mother walks for 15 minutes to the well to fill the container with water and then walks back for another 15 minutes. The water doesn’t look clean, but it is the nearest source for us. We use it for cooking, drinking, and washing. We try to use as little as possible so we don’t have to go fetch it again.’
Jeremy Stoner, Save the Children's Regional Director, said: ‘In places where medical care is scarcely available, prevention is critical. Yet measures like social distancing are hugely challenging in countries in conflict. If people need to stay two metres apart, for Palestinians living in Gaza to comply with this, the territory would have to be ten times larger than it currently is; for Syrians living in displacement camps, families would need to spread out in numerous tents currently unavailable; and for Yemenis, of whom about 2 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, the priority would be getting food.'
Many children in Gaza, Syria, and Yemen suffer from pre-existing health concerns caused by childhoods consumed with war. They will be malnourished, injured, or will not have been properly vaccinated. The same is true for their parents, many of whom have little or no family support and cannot afford to become ill. It is literally a matter of life and death to support these areas in their efforts to contain a Covid-19 outbreak,’ he added.
Save the Children is calling on the Government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the de-facto authorities in Gaza to uphold their international responsibilities by ensuring the right to health is fully provided to children in the West Bank including Jerusalem, and Gaza. Restrictions on humanitarian and medical relief items entering Gaza must be lifted, and people in need of medical care must be afforded access to it.
We are also calling on warring parties in Syria to observe a complete ceasefire in the North West to allow for the full and unhindered access to people in need. In Yemen, all warring parties must fully and truly implement the recently announced ceasefire to help the country prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak. As an aid agency, Save the Children is already facing a slowdown in its response because of closure of international borders, grounding of flights, and new limitations to movements in country. Teams on the ground need to be able to reach people in need with existing humanitarian aid, and distribute for example hygiene products, awareness sessions, sim cards, and cash without any impediments.
*Names have been changed for safety reasons
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Notes to editors:
- The Gaza strip is home to 2 million people, half of whom are children, according to the United Nations. They live in an area of 365 km2, which means 4,505 people live per km2.
- North West Syria is home to more than 3 million people including 1.5 million children. North East Syria is home to 1.35 million people in need, half of whom are children. Coronavirus tests are still not available in all areas across Syria and the results are largely centralized by a Damascus laboratory.
- Yemen is home to 30.5 million people. Out of the total population, 80% is in need of aid, including 12.3 million children.
- A hard-to-reach (HTR) area is an area not regularly accessible to humanitarian actors for the purpose of sustained humanitarian programming due to the denial of access by State and Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs), the continual need to secure access, or due to restrictions such as active conflict, multiple security checkpoints or failure of the authorities to provide timely approval. https://www.unocha.org/sites/dms/Syria/2017_Syria_hno.pdf (page 6)
- Save the Children is working hard in Syria, Yemen and Gaza to keep its programmes safe for children. We ensure the focus is on the safety of children and we modify our programming to meet the changing nature of the outbreak. The safety of our staff and the communities we serve is our absolute priority. Like many other international organisations, we are working on contingency plans to ensure our work can continue, and preparing to respond to the needs of children impacted by the outbreak.
2 WHO in an email to Save the Children
4 Physicians for Human Rights Israel, 24th March 2020.
5 Abdelnasser Soboh, the director of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office, The Guardian, 22nd March 2020.
8 UNRWA, Health in the Gaza Strip, webpage. https://www.unrwa.org/activity/health-gaza-strip