Ravaged by the civil war, several humanitarian agencies warned that Yemen's healthcare system is on the brink of collapse and the population faces a risk of famine as the country struggles with the COVID-19 outbreak. The civil war which has destroyed its infrastructure and exposed a large section of the population to a risk of malnourishment and famine.
According to WHO, between 10 April, when the first case was confirmed, and 6 June, the authorities in Yemen announced 486 COVID-19 cases, including 112 deaths. The case fatality rate (CFR) is alarmingly high at 24.77 per cent.
Meanwhile, the United Nations agencies have given a stark warning that lives are at risk in Yemen because of a combination of war, coronavirus and a lack of money. UN spokesman said that fully three-quarters of its programmes in Yemen will close in the coming weeks if more funds are not secured.
According to news agency Associated Press, bodies of coronavirus victim are buried in silence. Gravediggers and guards at the cemeteries are warned not to speak about the causes of the deaths. If asked, they are told to say that the dead are “unidentified bodies from the war,” according to several residents and one gravedigger. Families are never really told if their relatives died from the coronavirus, which is believed to be the culprit. Test results are never released. These daily funeral rituals come as social media are flooded with condolences and photographs of the dead.
The coronavirus is spreading throughout Yemen, a county that has been devastated by five years of civil war. The fighting is between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north, and a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government.
The fighting has already killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. Years of aerial bombings and intense ground fighting has destroyed thousands of buildings, leaving half of Yemen’s health facilities dysfunctional. About 18% of the country’s 333 districts have no doctors. Water and sanitation systems have collapsed. Many families, especially among the millions displaced by fighting, can barely afford one meal a day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the deadly toll of the war in Yemen, crippling a health system already in shambles with little capacity to test those suspected of having the virus. The country has no more than 500 ventilators and 700 ICU beds nationwide. There is one oxygen cylinder per month for every 2.5 million people.
The situation is exacerbated in the Houthi-controlled north, where the rebels have suppressed information about the virus, severely punished those who speak out, enforced little mitigation measures, and promoted conspiracies and claims by the Houthi minister of health that their scientists are working on developing a cure for COVID-19 to present to the world.
Richard Brennan, the WHO’s regional emergency director, told the AP that he believes the COVID-19 deaths are in the hundreds and cases are in the thousands, based on what he has heard from numerous health providers in Yemen.
Local health officials, aid workers, residents, and community activists who all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the pandemic, say the situation in the war-torn country is worsening fast. Local unions, who have kept their own death tallies from the coronavirus, report that 46 medical staffers, 28 judges, and 13 lawyers died in a three-week period between mid-May and early June, well above the Houthis’ official count.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said one aid worker of an international agency working in Yemen. “Now the COVID-19 outbreak, the suspension of funding, the tension between donors and the authorities, we have less money, and more needs. It’s terrible.”
(With inputs from agencies)