Hundreds of people in Aden, southern Yemen’s main city, have died in the past week with symptoms of what appears to be the coronavirus, local health officials said in interviews with The Associated Press.
The officials fear the situation is only going to get worse: Yemen has little capacity to test those suspected of having the virus and a 5-year-long civil war has left the health system in shambles.
One gravedigger in Aden told AP he’d never seen such a constant flow of dead — even in a city that has seen multiple bouts of bloody street battles during the civil war.
Officially, the number of coronavirus virus cases in Yemen is low — 106 infections in the southern region, with 15 deaths. Authorities in the Houthi rebel-controlled north announced their first case on May 5 and say there has been only two infection, one of whom died, a Somali migrant.
But doctors say the Houthis are covering up an increasing number of cases to protect their economy and troops. And the surge in deaths in Aden — more than 500 in just the past week, according to the city registrar — has raised the nightmare scenario that the virus is spreading swiftly in a country with almost no capacity to resist it.
The upswing in suspected COVID-19 cases in Yemen is sounding alarms throughout the global health community, which fears the virus will spread like wildfire throughout the world’s most vulnerable populations such as refugees or those impacted by war.
“If you have a full-blown community transmission in Yemen, because of the fragility, because of the vulnerability, because of the susceptibility, it will be disastrous,” said Altaf Musani, the World Health Organization chief in Yemen.
WHO says its models suggest that, under some scenarios, half of Yemen’s population of 30 million could be infected and more than 40,000 could die.
Half of Yemen’s health facilities are dysfunctional, and 18 per cent of the country’s 333 districts have no doctors. Water and sanitation systems have collapsed. Many families can barely afford one meal a day.
Yemen has no more than 500 ventilators and 700 ICU beds nationwide. There is one oxygen cylinder per month for every 2.5 million people. WHO provided some 6,700 test kits to Yemen, split between north and south, and says another 32,000 are coming. The health agency says it is trying to procure more protective equipment and supplies to fight the virus. But WHO said efforts have been hampered because of travel restrictions and competition with other countries.
The ongoing civil war pits the Houthis, who occupy the north, against a U.S. and Saudi-backed coalition that formed an internationally recognized government in the south. Now that coalition in the South has fragmented: separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates rose up and expelled the government from southern capital Aden last summer and declared self-rule last month. The two factions are fighting in Abyan, a province adjacent to Aden.
The war has already killed more than 100,000 and displaced millions.