Cemeteries overflow in Aden as COVID-19 deaths spike in Yemen
Official death toll disputed due to war-ravaged country’s extremely limited testing capacity and inability of overwhelmed hospitals to treat patients.
Surrounded by rows of freshly dug graves, Mohammed Ebeid says he has never seen anything like this.
“It’s strange. This has never happened before at the cemetery, in all the years past, to have these numbers of the dead,”said the gravedigger in Yemen’s southern city of Aden.
“A lot of people have brought their dead to us from the pandemic, the rains and the disease, and from this scourge that has come to us,” Ebeid added. “We don’t even know what it is and why it’s killed so many.”
Cemeteries in Aden are overflowing with graves, suggesting that the number of people killed by the new coronavirus is higher than the official count.
To date, officials in the war-ravaged country have reported 222 confirmed infections and 42 related deaths.
But the real numbers are hard to establish due to the country’s extremely limited testing capacity. According to data compiled by the International Rescue Committee, Yemen has one of the world’s lowest testing rates, even compared with other conflict-hit countries, at just 31 tests per one million citizens.
In a statement on May 14, Save the Children said nearly 400 people in Aden were reported to have died of coronavirus-like symptoms in just one week. The international charity warned that several hospitals in the city had shut down and medical staff were refusing to go to work for lack of proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Our teams on the ground are seeing how people are being sent away from hospitals, breathing heavily or even collapsing. People are dying because they can’t get treatment that would normally save their lives,” said Mohammed Alshamaa, Save the Children’s director of programmes in Yemen.
“There are patients who go from hospital to hospital and yet cannot get admitted. We’re hearing of families who have lost two or three loved ones in the past few weeks.”
‘It’s very heartbreaking’
Aden has been the interim seat of Yemen’s internationally-recognised government following the takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthi rebels in late 2014.
The conflict escalated in 2015 when neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened to reverse the rebels’ territorial gains and restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
War-ravaged Yemen is divided between the Saudi-backed government based in Aden and its foe, the Iran-aligned Houthi group, in the north.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and pushed millions to the brink of famine. As a result, the country’s malnourished population has among the world’s lowest immunity levels to disease
Years of fighting have also shattered the country’s healthcare system, to the point where the United Nations warned on Friday that it has “in effect collapsed”.
“We are overwhelmed,” said Caroline Seguin, Yemen operations manager for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), which runs the only dedicated coronavirus facility in southern Yemen.
“We were obliged to refuse patients because we didn’t have enough oxygen and medical staff to be able to treat the patients. So, it’s very heartbreaking.”
The organisation suspects that 40 of its staff members have also been infected, but there are no tests to check. It also believes that in Aden about 70 people are dying of coronavirus in their homes every day.
Meanwhile, the UN’s calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic have largely been ignored.
“Residents in the south of Yemen, and all over the country really, have been following the crisis emerging all over the world and are rightly concerned,” said Fatima al-Asrar, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.