Doctors have been detained, threatened and had their phones confiscated as part of Houthi measures to conceal the COVID-19 outbreak in Sana’a
Exclusive: Houthis conceal 100 coronavirus cases through threats and intimidation
Houthi authorities have concealed approximately 100 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, according to seven sources including multiple doctors, a coronavirus testing technician, a medical professional and an international aid worker.
The unreported infections, which dwarf the two cases publicly revealed in Sana'a, were suppressed through intimidation by Houthi authorities, according to the sources, all of whom spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
The Houthis detained at least two doctors for a day, two of the sources said, and released the doctors only after they pledged not to disclose any information regarding the concealed coronavirus cases.
All seven sources recounted incidents in which Houthis confiscated doctors’ phones and threatened them to not reveal certain cases.
Almasdar Online viewed official data and internal reports from at least two hospitals in Sana’a that confirmed the deaths of 17 people who had tested positive for coronavirus. Those deaths were on top of the approximately 100 concealed infections, which include about 60 men and about 40 women and children.
Many more people may have died of the virus without being tested, the sources added.
Health organizations contacted by Almasdar Online in Sana’a declined to provide accounts contradicting the Houthi authorities and said they support the official tallies.
Four of the Sana’a-based doctors who spoke to Almasdar Online said that the Houthis’ heavy-handed approach toward suspected coronavirus cases has discouraged many people with COVID-19 symptoms from seeking help.
The Houthi measures in Sana’a have included forced isolation and relocation of entire families if one member is thought to be infected. A lack of transparency surrounding these actions, such as the duration and conditions of isolation, have contributed to the fears among residents. Combined with the stigma of being labelled carriers of COVID-19, many residents are hesitant to seek medical testing or help.
The World Health Organization (WHO) temporarily paused activities in Houthi-controlled areas starting May 9. The move was aimed at pressuring Houthis to be more transparent about suspected coronavirus cases, three anonymous sources told Reuters.
The only two COVID-19 cases publicly announced by the Houthis were identified as people coming from outside rebel-controlled areas, in which more than 70 percent of Yemen's population lives. The first case, announced on May 5, was a Somali refugee who passed away in a hotel room in the capital. A Houthi-affiliated coronavirus testing lab had confirmed four coronavirus cases in rebel-held areas the same day, according to lab results seen by Almasdar Online, but the group has yet to comment on them.
Days later, two UN organizations accused the Houthis of inciting fear and hatred toward African migrants in Yemen by stigmatizing them as coronavirus carriers.
The second and last case announced by the Houthis was identified as a person who came from the interim capital of Aden, where most of Yemen’s confirmed COVID-19 infections have been reported. Aden has experienced a spike in deaths in recent days, an official whose duties include issuing death certificates there told Almasdar Online.
"We feel a lot of pressure, the Houthis are pressuring us, threatening us and not providing the most basic protection requirements for health workers," said one doctor from Sana'a. "The way the authorities deal with the disease and the lack of transparency is irrational."
The Houthis had temporarily locked down 11 neighborhoods and closed a number of streets in Sana’a, including Bab Al-Salam Street in the heart of the city. The group also closed a number of markets in the capital, after suspected cases emerged from people who had shopped in those markets.
Editing by Ahlam Mohsen and Casey Coombs