Coronavirus: Yemen in denial about COVID-19 – and worse still, there’s a fog of mystery over how many are dying
There’s no coronavirus pandemic in Yemen if you ask anybody in the Old City of Sana’a.
The world heritage site is crowded with bustling shoppers – and literally no one is wearing a mask when we visit.
As we weave our way through the narrow alleyways and ancient cobbled streets, the Sky crew are the only ones using protection against one of the world’s deadliest ever pandemics.
“There’s no corona in Yemen,” one man tells us as others gather around, nodding in agreement. “There’s no corona at all… People are lying. They’re liars.”
In the Old City’s quat sector, where they sell the addictive leaves which 90% of Yemen’s population chew daily, we find a people in utter denial about the potentially deadly virus.
And there’s a firm belief here that quat – which gives the user an amphetamine “high” – can help ward off the crippling disease.
“Whenever you get a temperature and tiredness, you chew some quat and you get better,” one man tells us.
When we ask another if he’s ever thought of wearing a mask for protection, he scoffs at us. “Why? Why do we need masks if there’s no corona?”
It is a common belief. Yemen had its first reported COVID-19 case on 10 April.
Since then, it is difficult to believe that the country – which is suffering the world’s largest humanitarian disaster – has managed to bring it under control. Most of the population is classified as dependent on aid.
There’s a widespread lack of clean water to maintain simple hygiene standards, considered essential to stop the spread of the virus.
There’s a crumbling and busted medical infrastructure unable to cope with the multiple existing problems and common killers such as malnutrition and diarrhoea.
There’s a fresh outbreak of cholera. Millions suffer from pre-existing conditions. All of these factors make the Yemenis uniquely vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus – a virus which has floored some of the richest countries on the planet.
But COVID-19 testing and tracing is virtually non-existent in Yemen, which contributes to the fog of mystery over how fast the virus is spreading and how many are infected or dying.
In the Houthi-controlled north, which contains the over-populated city of Sana’a, the official number of coronavirus fatalities is just four.
The official total number of nationwide cases is under 2,000, with fewer than 500 deaths. These are figures which only the Yemenis seem comfortable believing.
Auke Lootsma, from the United Nations Development Programme, said: “On top of everything that Yemen is experiencing, it can now also add the highest unofficial death rate to COVID-19 in the world.”
Yemen has been struggling through six years of war which has divided the country into territory controlled by the internationally recognised government (supported by a Saudi-led coalition backed by the US and the UK) which rules over the south including the port city of Aden – and the Houthi rebels in the north (supported by Iran) who have the capital, Sana’a.
It’s left the population of 30 million suffering unimaginable hardship. The UN estimates those Yemenis who catch coronavirus die in record numbers. The average fatality rate globally is about 7% – but in Yemen, that figure is estimated by the UN to be around the 30% mark.
And with the lack of official data on both sides of the conflict, it’s been left to local medical groups to try to collate figures of the dead. One medical charity estimated a shockingly high number of health workers have died – possibly as many as 100.
One young doctor working at the Al-Kuwait hospital in Sana’a told Sky News she was still traumatised by the number of medical colleagues who’ve been admitted with coronavirus symptoms and haven’t survived.
“I don’t want to think in the future because it will be like a nightmare, Dr Rania Jashan said. “I try to avoid thinking what will be next… because we don’t have the doctors.”
On top of this, there’s a deep suspicion amongst many Yemenis about the virus itself – where it is coming from and how it has spread.
Virtually every patient we spoke to in the hospital spoke about the fear of being given the “lethal injection”. Dr Jashan said there was a firmly held belief that the doctors were either spreading the virus or injecting the sufferers and killing them.
Mansour Abdul Wasih Sharabe has spent the past four days intubated and on a ventilator.
He’s remarkably alert and lucid about how frightened he was about coming into the hospital. He tells us he believed he’d almost been taken hostage. He was terrified.
“What did I do wrong?,” he said, “Why am I tied to the bed like this? I can’t breathe… I have to get out. What did I do?”
In Sana’a’s Old City, those who do believe the virus exists are also convinced it’s a biological weapon used by those who’ve been waging war against them in this region for the past few years.
Ali Abu Ali Al-Salame, 56, told us: “If they are already hitting us with prohibited weapons and missiles and illegal bombs, why wouldn’t they hit us with this virus?”
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He blamed Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel for all the misery the Yemenis are feeling.
And in a country where half of the medical facilities are not functioning, the global pandemic has also led to a cut in international donations. There’re also worries that both sides in this conflict are restricting access to the millions donated in aid.
The doctors in the Al-Kuwait hospital tell us they’ve dealt with “thousands” of COVID cases, but their foreign sponsors are cutting their donations because the official tally suggests the virus is “over” here. They are frantic with worry about the future and what it holds.
“We are in emergency situation already,” Dr Ahmed Al Junaid said.
“We have the war and conflict and morbidity and illiteracy… and now we have COVID.
“We hope another organisation will help us… we hope to send a message to the world to stop the war, stop the conflict and help the Yemeni to negotiation and peace.”
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