© [Omar Sanadiki/Reuters] The Syrian government confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the country on Sunday [Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]
GENEVA, March 24 (Reuters) - An immediate nationwide ceasefire is needed across Syria to enable an "all-out-effort" to stamp out the coronavirus and prevent it from ravaging a beleaguered population, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday.
Prisoners and millions of displaced people, especially those in rebel-held Idlib in the northwest, are especially vulnerable after nine years of war, they said.
Syrians are "acutely vulnerable to COVID-19," Geir Pedersen, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said in a statement, and he appealed on humanitarian grounds for "large-scale releases of detainees and abductees."
Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Near and Middle East, echoed the call for a ceasefire.
"Because to some extent we can't fight two battles at the same time," Carboni said in an interview with Reuters. "We can't dedicate time and energy to what the pandemic response requires and at the same time be addressing the emergency needs of people recently displaced or destitute."
Carboni disclosed that the Swiss-based aid agency has asked Syrian authorities to allow it to help with infection prevention measures and to provide hygiene supplies at nine central prisons.
"Now we hope that the authorities will answer positively very soon to our proposal," he said. "We believe that people detained and displaced are even more vulnerable than the general population."
The ICRC, whose largest humanitarian operation worldwide is in Syria, is the only agency allowed into its detention centres - where some experts estimate some 130,000 people are held.
The Assad government announced on Sunday its first coronavirus case after unconfirmed reports suggested the coronavirus had been detected but covered up, a charge officials denied.
"Healthcare facilities have been destroyed or are degraded. There is a shortage of key medical equipment and health professionals," Pedersen said.
The ICRC's Carboni said that while Syrian health officials say the number of cases is quite limited, quick action is needed to halt a spread, including the provision of clean water.
"Even if there are five or 10 cases, our work would still be to focus on making sure that water reaches people because without water you can't wash your hands," he said.
In al-Hasakah, the largest city in the northeast, a pumping station providing water to 800,000 people has been out of operation for three days and needs repair, he said.
"We installed 45 water tanks all around the city and are water trucking until we can fix this pumping station and can have access," Carboni said.
The focus across Syria must be on prevention, he said. "Because when they start having cases, and if it gets out of hand, it's going to be very, very difficult to address, as we can see in many Western countries where they have way more sophisticated health systems," Carboni said.
He also noted the difficulties of putting in place general health guidance for containing the spread of the coronavirus. "The way to address the pandemic is to stay home," Carboni said. "But when you are an IDP (internally displaced person), you don't have a home. How do you do that? Certainly social distancing becomes a luxury."