When a case is reported, rather than testing everyone who has been in contact with the patient, the Houthis have in some cases resorted to padlocking entire apartment buildings without any advanced notice.
Fear and stigma keep sick Yemenis away from coronavirus treatment
One could be forgiven for having hoped that Yemen’s woes, which have kept away (most) tourists, could have kept away the coronavirus. Those wishes were dashed on April 10, after a 60 year-old port worker on the coast of Hadhramout governorate tested positive for COVID-19.
It has been nearly two months, but the number of confirmed cases in the country is fewer than 400, when the expected trajectory of the virus, particularly when there are no social-distancing measures being taken, is to spread exponentially. The confirmed number of cases is growing meaningless as a measure of the outbreak, with less than 1000 coronavirus tests performed in the country of 26 million.
The severe mismanagement of the epidemic has led Yemenis to avoid hospitals and testing, preferring to test their luck rather than suffer the stigma of having coronavirus. In Houthi-controlled areas, lack of transparency regarding enforced isolation has resulted in a low number of officially confirmed cases: four.
When a case is reported, rather than testing everyone who has been in contact with the patient, the Houthis have in some cases resorted to padlocking entire apartment buildings without any advanced notice, multiple sources told Almasdar Online.
In Houthi-controlled Taiz, one family had just moved into a building and had not yet transported the vast majority of their belongings when the Houthis announced someone in the building had tested positive and padlocked everyone inside.
“We didn’t even have our phone chargers,” said one woman, who declined to be named, fearing retribution from the Houthis. It turned out that the patient who had tested positive was technically a resident of the building, but had spent the past two weeks at his sister’s home. The misunderstanding was cleared up a couple of days later, but not before everyone he had been in contact with at his sister’s home had been free to come and go for nearly 48 hours, potentially spreading the virus to others.
In Sana’a, unfounded rumors of the Houthis giving lethal injections to patients infected with coronavirus have made their way around the Yemeni press and social media.
The same doctors in Sana’a who previously revealed to Almasdar Online in mid-May that the Houthis had concealed at least 100 confirmed coronavirus cases in the capital say the rumors are untrue.
While the rumors of lethal injections are false, the fear – which keeps Yemenis away from hospitals – is real. Despite the very serious ramifications of such a rumor, the Houthis have not specifically addressed it publicly.
In Sana’a’s Al-Hasabah area, at least 80 people died between May 15 and May 28 after suffering from coronavirus-like symptoms, according to multiple sources who spoke to Almasdar Online.
In the absence of official statistics due in part to the suppression of information by Houthi authorities, Almasdar Online relied on interviews with 10 neighborhood officials (Al-Akel) and community figures, cemetery workers, a number of imams from local mosques and a district official.
One local official in Al-Hasabah said that about 10 of those who died in recent weeks had tested positive for coronavirus, but the patients and their families refused to publicly acknowledge the diagnoses out of fear of stigmatization.
Al-Hasabah, which encompasses several neighborhoods, is one of eight areas in Al-Thawrah district, which is one of 10 districts in the city of Sana’a. Home to mostly middle to low-income families, Al-Hasabah has two small government health care units and one small private hospital as well as other private clinics.
While the ages of the deceased varied widely, as many as 10 of them were known to have suffered from chronic diseases. The rest were otherwise healthy before falling ill within about a week of their deaths.
All of the sources Almasdar Online spoke to suggested that the nearly 80 people who died suffered from COVID-19 symptoms. However, the causes of death could not be determined.
Many of the deceased were buried without obtaining official permits, according to an official in Al-Thawrah district. It has become common during the war in Sana’a for family members to bury relatives without permits, as authorities in the Houthi-run government lack the capacity to enforce burial regulations.
A grave digger in one of Al-Hasabah’s neighborhoods says the cemetery is full, and there's no room to add any more bodies. “We might have a cemetary crisis soon – war and corona have filled them."
An official at a local government-run health unit in Al-Hasabah said he could not confirm that the spike in deaths were caused by COVID-19, but added that “it is very obvious what’s happening.”
Despite mounting evidence of the virus's rapid spread, the Houthis appear to be more concerned with maintaining the economy in the areas it controls. Rather than ordering shopping malls to close, as the authorities in the south have done, the Houthis periodically close the malls and markets for a few hours to sterilize them. Shopkeepers told Almasdar Online that the Houthis solicit payments to allow the shops to remain open.
In Aden, lack of coronavirus-trained medical staff and personal protection equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks and gowns have led some doctors to stop showing up for shifts, and at least three hospitals in Aden to shutter. Multiple sources have told Almasdar Online that their loved ones died at home after being turned away at one or more hospitals in Aden not equipped to deal with coronavirus cases. Hundreds of people have died in the past month in Aden with COVID-19 like symptoms.
Even in the most developed of nations, with fully functioning health facilities and ample resources, determining what percentage of the population has been infected with coronavirus is a tall order. In Yemen, where the problems are many and the solutions seem slow-coming, the pandemic tops off five years of war, chronic hunger, the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, dengue fever, diphtheria and malaria outbreaks, not to mention cyclones and floods.
Compromised immune systems and widespread malnutrition may leave Yemenis even more vulnerable to coronavirus. As the number of cases in the country continues to rise, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it is reducing “incentives” it pays to public health sector doctors, who have not collected salaries in years.
“Very simply put, I just don’t have the funding to sustain lifeline programmes [like this],” Altaf Musani, the UN agency’s representative in Yemen, told The New Humanitarian.
The UN and international humanitarian bodies called for $2.41 billion on Thursday for relief efforts ahead of the High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen.
As Yemen waits to see if the relief efforts will be funded, Yemenis largely go about their lives, seeing little choice in the matter.