Skewed statistics by the Assad government are a major obstacle in COVID aid and vaccines reaching the five million people in North and East Syria, said a health official of the regional administration. This aid gap is growing more visible as COVID cases accelerate in the region. In addition, health officials say that the Assad government has shipped only a tiny fraction of the vaccines sent to the region by the World Health Organization (WHO) to North and East Syria.

“The WHO depends on statistics and information of the Syrian regime, which are usually politicized and inaccurate,” said Dr. Jiwan Mustafa, co-chair of the Health Authority of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). “So what is distributed and donated to North and East Syria is unfair.”

Mustafa reports that 203,000 vaccines have recently arrived in Syria, of which only 10 percent are allocated for North and East Syria. The most recent World Bank estimate of the population of the Syrian Arab Republic is 17.07 million. This put North and East Syria, with approximately five million people, at roughly 29.3 percent of the total Syrian population. 

It has now been reported that 645 vaccine doses have been shipped to North and East Syria, a small fraction of the more than 20,000 doses that had been allocated by the Syrian government had allocated for the region.

The vaccines have not yet been delivered, despite a WHO tweet indicating that they had arrived in Qamishli, a city in North and East Syria. The vaccines were reportedly to be delivered to a Syrian-government-controlled facility in Qamishli.

COVID cases are currently accelerating again in North and East Syria. The Health Authority announced on May 5, 2021, that the number of confirmed cases in North and East Syria is currently 16,319. There have been 636 confirmed COVID deaths in the region. These numbers are likely only a fraction of the true cases and deaths. Many cases go undetected and unreported as a result of the damaged health infrastructure resulting from the past decade of war and instability.

International humanitarian observers have taken note that the Syrian government has politicized healthcare aid.

“The Syrian government has never been shy about withholding health care as a weapon of war but playing this game with the vaccine undermines the global effort to control the pandemic,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Those supplying vaccines for Syria should do everything in their power to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines reach those most vulnerable no matter where they are in the country,” Kayyali said.

“There is unfairness in the distribution of these materials,” said Mustafa, “and what is granted to North and East Syria is considered very little regarding the population census and the need in North and East Syria.”

In response to the current rise in cases, the AANES has imposed COVID safety measures, including closure of all border crossings in the region, with exclusions for humanitarian work, healthcare travel, students, and other commercial purposes. A partial lockdown has been announced to include a curfew limiting movement in the evenings, from 7 PM to 7 AM. All shops have been ordered to remain closed except for those providing essential services, such as commercial shops, food stores, and groceries. Restaurants must serve only delivery orders. Lockdown measures do not extend to hospitals, public and private health centers, the offices of international organizations, media professionals, pharmacies, bakeries, and fuel stations. The partial lockdown is expected to continue until the rate of transmission decreases significantly.

The autonomous region of North and East Syria is one-third of the landmass of Syria. It is a region outside of the control of the official Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, with its own functioning Health Authority. The autonomous administration of the region supplies its five million people with services such as water, electricity, healthcare, education, and security. It is protected by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), US allies in the struggle against ISIS.

The World Health Organization has undertaken a special effort named COVAX to supply vaccines to vulnerable populations in low income countries, including Syria. According to WHO releases, “The goal of COVAX is to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification by the end of 2021. These vaccines will be offered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations, initially prioritising healthcare workers then expanding to cover vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Further doses will then be made available based on country need, vulnerability and COVID-19 threat. The COVAX Facility will also maintain a buffer of doses for emergency and humanitarian use.”