Yemen’s Saudi-backed government has accused its Houthi foes of covering up a large outbreak of coronavirus in areas they hold as the United Nations warned that the country could suffer a “catastrophic” food security situation due to the pandemic.
The Aden-based government also called for urgent global assistance to help Yemen’s war-ravaged health sector deal with the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the virus is spreading undetected among the population in the country, divided between the government in the south and the Houthi group based in the north.
The conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis has already caused what the UN describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with about 80 percent of Yemen’s population reliant on aid and millions facing hunger.
The government has reported 128 infections and 20 deaths linked to the coronavirus across nine of Yemen’s 21 provinces. The Houthis, who hold most large population centres, have announced only four cases with one death, all in the capital Sanaa.
“Reports on the ground indicate a large number of coronavirus cases in areas under the Houthis’ control and hiding this information is completely unacceptable,” Minister of Local Administration Abdul Raqib Fath told a news conference on Sunday.
He urged the WHO and the international community to pressure the Houthis about declaring cases.
The Houthi movement, which pushed the internationally recognised government from Sanaa in late 2014, denies the charges.
On Saturday, its health minister announced two more infections and said the ministry was following all suspected cases, without providing figures.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned on Monday that hunger could spread drastically across Yemen due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“That situation could be really catastrophic if all the elements of worst-case scenarios come to be, but let’s hope not and the UN are working on avoiding that,” senior FAO regional official Abdessalam Ould Ahmed told Reuters news agency.
The United States said on May 6 it would provide $225m to the World Food Programme (WFP) for Yemen, including for reduced operations in the north.
The WFP had said it would halve aid in Houthi-held areas from mid-April over donor concerns that the group is hindering aid deliveries, a charge it denies.
The UN envoy to Yemen said on Thursday significant progress has been made towards cementing a temporary truce prompted by the coronavirus pandemic and to pave the way for a resumption of stalled peace talks.
Death toll in Aden surges
Separately, health officials in the southern city of Aden say deaths there have surged to at least five times higher than normal. The first coronavirus case in Aden, the government’s interim capital, was recorded only about a month ago.
But since then, the total number of deaths registered in the city has “increased seven-fold”, according to Saddam al-Haidari, a physician at a public hospital.
Hospitals have stopped admitting patients with symptoms of COVID-19 in recent days, several health sources were quoted as saying by AFP news agency, since they are not equipped to deal with the virus.
Many doctors in Aden have deserted their posts because they do not have access to protective gear, these sources added, while several hospitals have even closed down, according to Save the Children.
“Our teams on the ground are seeing how people are being sent away from hospitals, breathing heavily or even collapsing,” said Mohammed Alshamaa, Save the Children’s director of programmes in Yemen.
“People are dying because they can’t get treatment that would normally save their lives.”
Save the Children said on Thursday that authorities in Aden have reported an average of 50 deaths per day since May 7.
The figure is five times higher than the baseline average of 10 deaths a day in more normal times, according to the international aid group.
“In the past 24 hours alone, more than 86 deaths have been reported in Aden due to several epidemics and fevers,” said Sanad Jamil, who heads the Civil Affairs Department, which issues death certificates in Aden.
Testing for coronavirus is available only at a central public laboratory, but the supply of kits is insufficient, resulting in suspected cases not being tested, according to Yasser Bamallem, a doctor at the Al-Jumhouriya public hospital.
Bamallem is in no doubt about what is driving the rising death rate because, before expiring, many displayed symptoms in line with COVID-19 and distinct from other illnesses.
“With the spread of coronavirus, the death rate surged,” he told AFP.
“We were already fighting against dengue fever and chikungunya, which are transmitted by mosquito bites – but deaths were very few,” he explained.
“We are on the verge of a catastrophe in Aden.”
Yasser al-Nassiri, director of the private Al-Kubi Hospital, said the closure of other hospitals has put pressure on his facility. His staff are receiving 400 patients daily, up from an average of 150.
Situation ‘out of control’
The main theatre of Yemen’s war pitches an internationally recognised government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
But tensions between southern separatists and the central government have further muddied the waters, with the self-proclaimed Southern Transitional Council (STC) declaring self-rule in the south on April 26.
Fighting between pro-government troops and separatist forces on the outskirts of Zinjibar, some 60km (37 miles) from Aden, has killed more than 20 people since early May.
Nassiri said authorities are not paying enough attention to the health crisis, blaming the recent flareup in fighting in the south.
Aden, home to 550,000 people, has taken virtually no preventive measures against the pandemic.
There are no quarantine facilities for those who do test positive in the city.
“The situation in Aden has got out of control and is expected to implode further based on the number of daily deaths and cases,” Bamallem lamented.