Yemen confirms first coronavirus case, braces for outbreak

Confirmation of first infection in war-torn Yemen comes after start of unilateral ceasefire partly to halt virus spread.

Medical staff pictured at a quarantine centre built in preparation for a possible spread of COVID-19 in Sanaa [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]
Medical staff pictured at a quarantine centre built in preparation for a possible spread of COVID-19 in Sanaa [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Yemen has reported its first coronavirus case in a southern province, raising fears of catastrophic consequences in a healthcare system broken by five years of war.

“The first confirmed case of coronavirus has been reported in Hadramout province,” Yemen’s supreme national emergency committee for COVID-19 said on Twitter on Friday.

The committee, run by the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, said the infected patient was in stable condition and receiving care.

“The case is in isolation and treatment, all known contacts are being traced and quarantined,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Twitter.    

“WHO is working closely with [the health ministry] to ensure further rapid containment measures are taken.”

Hadramout province has seen some of the worst pockets of malnutrition and disease in the war-torn country.

Control of the large southern province has long been divided. Government forces backed by a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition control the coastal towns, but parts of the interior remain in the hands of al-Qaeda fighters.

The committee said medical teams and concerned authorities had taken all necessary precautions and promised to release further details on the coronavirus case later on Friday.

The patient was a Yemeni working in the port of al-Shihr, a local official told Reuters news agency.

Crippled healthcare system

Following years of war, Yemen already faces what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Aid groups have warned that a major outbreak will be “disastrous” and devastate the country’s gutted healthcare system.

Repeated coalition bombings have destroyed or closed more than half of Yemen’s health facilities. Deep poverty, severe water shortages and a lack of adequate sanitation have made the country a breeding ground for disease.

“We’re seeing some of the most richest nations, with their most advanced health systems, unable to cope with this pandemic,”Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al Jazeera.

“In Yemen, you have millions of people who are hungry, young children who are malnourished, people with life threatening health conditions … In this kind of environment, this pandemic will be deadly,” she warned.

‘Frightening’

Yemen has been mired in violence since the Houthi rebels overthrew the government in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-UAE-led coalition to intervene in support of Hadi’s government. The five-year-old conflict has killed more than 100,000 and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

The coalition announced on Thursday it would halt military operations for two weeks. But a Houthi spokesman said they will not stop fighting while the country is under siege.

“We will continue to fight and target their military installations and industrial sites since they continue with the siege. So we don’t consider it to be a ceasefire,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, told Al Jazeera on Thursday.

If the virus spreads in Yemen, the impact would be “catastrophic” as the health status of at least half the population is “very degraded” and the country does not have sufficient supplies, capabilities or facilities, said UN humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande.

In a statement, Grande said that people across the country “have some of the lowest levels of immunity and highest levels of acute vulnerability in the world”.

“What’s facing Yemen is frightening. More people who become infected are likely to become severely ill than anywhere else,” she warned.

“It’s time for the parties to stop fighting each other and start fighting COVID together.”

Saudi Arabia is also scrambling to limit the spread of the disease at home. Its health ministry has reported more than 3,200 coronavirus infections and 44 deaths from the illness.

There are more than 134,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Middle East, including over 5,300 fatalities. Some 4,100 of those deaths are in Iran, which has the largest outbreak in the region. Authorities there have recorded more than 66,000 total cases.

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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