More than 500 people have died in the past eight days in Yemen’s capital, Aden, many with shortness of breath, city officials say, raising fears that the coronavirus is spreading out of control, fueling a civil war that has left the country in ruins.
A gravedigger told the Associated Press that he had never seen such a steady stream of the dead – in a city that had seen many bloody street battles during more than five years of war. Messages of condolence for the death in Aden have been circulating on Twitter and other social media for days. Some report multiple deaths within a single family.
With little safety equipment, healthcare professionals are terrified of infection. Many medical facilities in Aden are closed while employees flee. Others respond to patients. No one is responding to a hotline set up by US-trained rapid response teams set up to test suspected cases at home, residents and officials say.
“If you suspect you have a crown and are in Aden, you will probably wait at home for your death,” said Mohamed Rubeid, deputy head of the city’s health service.
Officially, the outbreak in war-torn Yemen is small. The official number from the south is 106 cases and 15 deaths. Authorities in the Houthi rebels, which control northern Yemen, say there have been two infections, one of which has killed a Somali migrant.
In the north, the Houthis are suppressing any information about the scale of the epidemic, even as doctors tell the Associated Press about rising cases and deaths. The Hutus refused to give positive test results and silenced medical staff, journalists and families trying to talk about the cases, doctors and other officials said.
This jump in deaths this month to the north and south has raised the nightmarish scenario that the virus is spreading rapidly in a country that has almost no capacity to fight it. The civil war, which killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions, eroded the health care system. Half of the health facilities are non-functional, and 18% of the 333 districts in the country do not have doctors. Water supply and sewerage systems collapsed.
The World Health Organization says the models suggest that in some scenarios, half of Yemen’s population of 30 million could be infected and more than 40,000 die. The WHO has provided about 7,700 test kits in Yemen, divided between north and south, and says another 32,000 are forthcoming. It says it is trying to procure more protective equipment and other materials.
The civil war pitted the Hutus against a coalition backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, which formed an internationally recognized government in the south. The war has already killed more than 100,000 and displaced millions.
Now the US-backed coalition has split: Separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates rose and ousted the government from Aden in the summer and declared self-government last month. The two factions are fighting in Abian, a province adjacent to Aden.
The main services in Aden were already slapped. Following the separatist takeover, Aden’s health authorities were divided, officials had no idea who to report to and no one was making decisions. The virus thrives in the vacuum leader.
From May 7th to Thursday, Aden’s civil registrar registered 527 deaths, the head of the service, Sanad Gamel, told the AP. Save the children, a statement on Thursday said 385 people had died in Aden last week with symptoms similar to COVID-19.
Authorities in the south announced the first confirmed case of coronavirus on April 10th.
But relief agencies believe the virus has been actively circulating in Yemen since March. Doctors may have missed it in part due to a dengue outbreak in Denga and Chikungunya after a major flood in April left entire sections of Aden submerged in sewers and water for weeks.
In Al Qatya, one of the smallest of the city’s six cemeteries, gravedigger Abdullah Salem said he received 10 to 15 bodies a day, 10 times more than normal. He said he did not know how to deal with the bodies, as there was no cause of death in the funeral permits.
Is it a crown, dengue or tuberculosis? We have no idea and people are afraid, “he said.
Zakaria al-Kaiti, the outgoing head of Aden’s only isolation center at Al Amal Hospital, said she had no doubts about the reason. “I can confirm that the coronavirus is an outbreak in Aden.”
Fearing infection, many health prisons close their doors. At least three doctors have died from COVID-19, according to a health ministry official.
Nabil Abdel-Bari, a young businessman suffering from shortness of breath and fever, was denied entry from four hospitals, his friend Asem Sabri said. He died days later at home.
“The doctors looked at him and shouted, ‘You have a coronavirus,’” Sabri said. “The doctors in Aden have lost all their humanity and mercy.”
In the north-controlled Houthi, doctors in three provinces, including the capital Sanaa, told the AP that a growing number of suspected coronavirus cases and deaths had been reported. All spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were under Houthi surveillance and were warned not to talk about cases.
In the first week of May, an influx of patients entered the COVID-19 treatment center at Kuwait Hospital in Sanaa, four officials said. One official said 50 of them were probably infected with the coronavirus, and 15 of those died.
Officials believe the patients were infected because Houthi authorities never disclosed the results of their tests. “When it’s negative, they give us the results,” the official said.
In Ibb province, a local official said at least 17 had died. In Damar province, a local medical official said at least 10 suspects had been hospitalized and at least two people had died.
While the Hutus have not officially acknowledged the cases, the United States has said it cannot pool donor support to send supplies to tackle the epidemic.
The WHO said it was trying to get more protective equipment and medical supplies. Altaf Musani, the agency’s head in Yemen, said it was difficult due to various restrictions on travel and competition with other countries.
“If you have a full transmission to the community in Yemen, because of instability, vulnerability, because of sensitivity, it will be catastrophic,” he said.
Maggie Michael, Associated Press