Following the announcement of the first coronavirus case in Yemen, the UN called for a ceasefire between the warring parties in a country where the healthcare system is already petering on the edge of collapse.
The case, recorded 10 April in the southern city of Hadramout, is of a 60-year-old man. No other cases have been registered since in Hadramout, but speculation arose other cases exist and were either unannounced or untested.
Hadramout governor Farag Al-Bohsoni quickly announced strict preventive measures against the spread of the virus, declaring a curfew from 6pm to 8am. Authorities started sterilising markets and public areas and healthcare facilities and the security apparatus were prepared.
In Taiz, Yemenis are suffering on multiple fronts. Diseases such as chikungunya, dengue and malaria have led to multiple fatalities. There are no statistics that reveal the size of the catastrophe in the southwestern city. Moreover, employees are not receiving their pay and are feeling the economic crunch with the pressure of Ramadan and the close advent of the Eid Al-Fitr, the Islamic feast following the holy month.
In Aden and Taiz, continuous skirmishes between the government and the Southern Transitional Council have led to the death and suffering of many residents.
Nonetheless, Taiz is more prepared to fight coronavirus than Aden. Taiz governor Nabil Shamsan formed an emergency committee against the pandemic, with the head of the committee, Ahmed Mansour, announcing the registration of four coronavirus cases on 10 May. Shamsan ordered the infected patients be taken to the Republic Hospital in Taiz, prepared as an isolation hospital. However, before being taken to the hospital, one case died. Mansour said 11 people came in contact with the case that was self-isolating at home, and no recoveries were announced.
Taiz residents have been complaining about the horrific spread of mosquitoes in the city. A local source told Al-Ahram Weekly that mosquitoes spread most in October and November, but because garbage collectors were not paid, trash accumulated in the streets. “However, an international organisation paid the garbage collectors’ dues to save Taiz from the garbage piles,” the source said.
Sanaa sources reported coronavirus is spreading in Sanaa with the Houthis keeping the matter under wraps. “The private sector has been launching awareness campaigns against the virus and there are screens in pharmacies, malls and supermarkets on which are displayed protective measures against the pandemic. Nonetheless, the city is crowded, with people going out to the markets,” one source said.
The Houthis have dedicated Kuwait University Hospital in Sanaa to patients of coronavirus. Another source from Sanaa reported a lack of transparency regarding the number of patients in the hospital. The source said the Houthis refused to hand relatives of coronavirus victims the bodies of the deceased, with guards beating them with weapons to drive them away from the hospital door.
Lise Grande, United Nations residencoordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, stated that, “since the first confirmed COVID-19 case, we have warned that the virus is now in Yemen and may quickly spread. The factors are all here. Low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability and a fragile, overwhelmed health system.”
Head of mission at Doctors Without Borders, Claire Ha-Duong, told DW: “Until recently, Yemen was one of the last countries in the world with no detected cases of the coronavirus. This can be attributed to the lack of testing capacity in the country. The virus has probably been in Yemen for some time already, but was not detected.”
“It is impossible for the country to prepare itself for the epidemic as it does not have personal protective equipment nor the appropriate tests,” she added.
The BBC reported, “Oxfam said it was a ‘devastating blow’, the International Rescue Committee called it a ‘nightmare scenario’. Yemen is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and millions are reliant on food aid. Diseases, including cholera, dengue and malaria, are rife and only half of hospitals are fully functional. News of the first COVID-19 case came a day after the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen began a ceasefire, saying it wanted to help stop coronavirus spread and support UN peace efforts.”
In Aden, where Yemenis have seen floods and rainstorms, rats and mosquitoes compound the environmental problems in the city, a local source said, adding that medical staffs from the Republican Hospital in Aden left their positions at the hospital fearing infection.
Crater Sky, a Yemeni news website, reported that chaos and horror spread among staff in the hospital after they were told Pakistani sailors were in the hospital on suspicion of coronavirus infection. The medical staff feared they would become infected, amid the lack of personal protective equipment in the hospital.
Meanwhile, Minister of Health and Population Nasser Baoum said Yemen has been adopting preventive measures against the pandemic, asking the public to be cautious. Baoum said his ministry “registered the entry of 50,342 nationals into the country through 11 land, four sea and four air ports from 18 January to 15 March, with whom precautionary measures were taken”.
Baoum added that the Health Ministry has activated quick response medical squads nationwide, raising alert levels at state clinics and emergency rooms.
The Russian news agency Sputnik reported a young Yemeni man, a confirmed coronavirus case, escaped from Hadramout’s Ibn Sina Hospital following his return from abroad.
Crater Sky also reported that in Aden 17 bodies were buried on 30 April, 12 bodies on 2 May and four bodies on 3 May, without residents knowing the cause of death, leading them to suspect chikungunya disease, spreading through mosquitos. A local source described the disease as “making the patient unable to move, as if paralysed. The cure is a shot worth $200.”
He added: “All of Aden’s hospitals are closed and death is everywhere with the absence of the government and the negligence of the Southern Transitional Council. On 10 May, at 11pm, there were protests calling for the resignation of the prime minister and the expulsion of the transitional council from Yemen.
“Shallow waters are filling the streets of Aden, leading to the spread of mosquitos, and consequently, many diseases. Aden is a city in ruins, with piles of garbage, rats running amid blow-up of sewage networks and the spread of the pneumonic plague that has killed 72 people.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly