War and Coronavirus in Yemen: Fears Grow as Virus Spreads While Information is Allegedly Suppressed

Doctors, human rights workers and citizens say Yemen’s authorities, particularly in areas controlled by the Houthi rebels, are suppressing information about the coronavirus outbreak, out of fear that their image be tarnished.

“We called all the relevant authorities and no one answered us, all the telephone numbers. The health office, national security, political headquarters, we called all of them. And no one answered, no one cared,” said a local resident in a video he posted online. He is not being named out of concern for his own safety.

The Covid-19 virus has added to the deadly toll of war in Yemen, crippling a health system already devastated by 5 years of civil war.

The country is particularly ill-equipped to handle the effects of the pandemic. It has little capacity to test those suspected of having the virus -no more than 500 ventilators and 700 beds in Intensive Care Units nationwide. There is one oxygen cylinder per month for every 2.5 million people. The few doctors who are able to treat patients are very exposed, with scant personal protection equipment.

Yemeni doctor, Marawan Al-Ghafory, lives now in Germany but is in touch with colleagues on the ground, said people are dying on the streets, hospitals are closing doors and healthcare staff are dying.

“A month from now we may not have a single physician,” he warned.

In the darkness, the bodies of suspected victims of coronavirus are carried in silence, one after the other, to be buried in several cemeteries across northern Yemen.

If asked, people 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 coronavirus.

Test results are never released.

The war is between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north, and a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government.

The war has already killed more than 100,000 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 situation is exacerbated in the Houthi-controlled north where the rebels have severely punished those who speak out, enforced little mitigation measures, promoted conspiracies and claims by the Houthi minister of health that scientists are working on developing a cure for Covid-19 to present to the world.

Officially, the rebels say that only 4 cases of coronavirus have been detected in the regions they control.

“The intentional suppression of media coverage from authorities, whether it’s in the northern or southern governorates, this suppression has very dangerous end results. Among them is that the world doesn’t know the real numbers of the epidemic. And people don’t know the sources of the epidemic. And the disease will spread widely, and will lead to many deaths. And no one will be able to stop it,” said Ilan Abdel Haqqa, health representative for the Taiz governorate authorities.

Taiz is a disputed province, partially controlled by the Houthis, and partially by the internationally-recognized government.

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