The new coronavirus is believed to be spreading throughout Yemen, where the healthcare system “has in effect collapsed”, the United Nations has warned as it appealed for urgent funding.
“Aid agencies in Yemen are operating on the basis that community transmission is taking place across the country,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing on Friday.
“We hear from many of them that Yemen is really on the brink right now. The situation is extremely alarming; they are talking about that the health system has in effect collapsed,” he said.
Aid workers report having to turn people away because they do not have enough medical oxygen or sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, Laerke said.
A flight carrying international aid workers landed in Aden on Thursday as airspace opened up for rotations, but Yemeni nationals have been doing most of the on-site work, he said.
The main coronavirus treatment centre in southern Yemen has recorded at least 68 deaths in just over two weeks, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), the medical charity running the site, said on Thursday.
The figure – more than double the toll announced by Yemeni authorities so far – suggested “a wider catastrophe unfolding in the city”, MSF said.
War-ravaged Yemen, whose malnourished population has among the world’s lowest immunity levels to disease, is divided between the Saudi-backed government based in Aden and its foe, the Iran-aligned Houthi group, in the north.
Yemeni authorities have reported 184 coronavirus infections, including 30 deaths, to the World Health Organization. “The actual incidence is almost certainly much higher,” Laerke said.
The UN estimates it will seek $2bn for Yemen to maintain aid programmes through year’s end, he said, adding that just $677m had been donated so far this year, compared with over $4bn during 2019.
The world governing body and Saudi Arabia will host a donor conference on June 2 in a bid to boost support for Yemen.
“We are urging the donors to pledge generously, and those who have given an indication of pledges to actually pay early because the operation in Yemen is severely, severely underfunded,” said Laerke.
The conflict in Yemen between government forces and Iran-backed Houthis escalated in March 2015, when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened against the rebels after they overran much of the country.
The war has left tens of thousands of people dead, most of them civilians, and the UN says around 24 million Yemenis – more than two-thirds of the country’s population – rely on some form of aid.
Questions have been raised over Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the donor conference, given that it has been accused of war crimes in Yemen.
Laerke said the UN had voiced concerns “forcefully and vocally” over alleged abuses committed by all sides, but stressed that Saudi Arabia was by far the largest humanitarian donor to Yemen in recent years.
“They gave very large amounts of money. They gave it unconditionally, no strings attached,” he said, adding that the billions in Saudi donations had helped fight cholera outbreaks and looming famines.
Having Saudi Arabia cohost the event “is a normal choice based on that background,” he said.