Hundreds of deaths from “coronavirus-like symptoms” have raised fears COVID-19 is rapidly spreading undetected throughout war-torn Yemen, where the United Nations and medical workers say the health care system “has in effect collapsed”.
- Save the Children reported at least 385 deaths within one week
- Yemen’s current rate of testing is just 31 tests per million people
- The ABC has spoken to medical workers in the area describing conditions as “devastating”
According to official numbers, Yemen have confirmed 212 infections and 39 deaths, but with one of lowest rates of testing in the world, aid workers fear this figure is “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported on Friday as many as 80 people were dying at home per day — up from a pre-outbreak norm of 10 — in the city of Aden, where the international aid group run the only dedicated COVID-19 centre in southern Yemen.
“What we are seeing in our treatment centre is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of people infected and dying in the city,” said Caroline Seguin, MSF’s operations manager for Yemen.
“People are coming to us too late to save, and we know that many more people are not coming at all. They are just dying at home.”
Earlier this month, Save the Children reported at least 385 deaths within one week from “coronavirus-like symptoms” in Aden.
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.
This week Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told a Geneva briefing that after five years of war and now a pandemic, “Yemen is really on the brink” and its health system “has in effect collapsed”.
The UN estimates that it will seek $US2 billion ($3 billion) for Yemen to maintain aid programs through to the end of the year, Mr Laerke said.
“If we do not get the money coming in, the programs that are keeping people alive, are very much essential to fighting back against COVID, will have to close,” he said.
“And then the world will have to witness . . . what happens without a functioning health system battling COVID. I do not think the world wants to see that.”
‘A race against time’ amid testing shortfall
Aid agencies say Yemen desperately needs medical equipment, protective gear for health workers and widespread testing to combat the virus.
In a report, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) listed coronavirus testing rates in Yemen among the lowest in the world — 31 tests per million, compared to 45,910 tests per million in Australia and 38,394 tests per million in the United States.
“[The] significant shortfall in COVID-19 testing in many conflict-affected countries highlights the dangerous prospect of undetected and therefore uncontrolled outbreaks as the coronavirus continues to spread globally,” the report said.
The IRC’s president and chief executive David Miliband said a “global response” was crucial to “beat the pandemic”.
“We are in a race against time … This pandemic will not come to an end here until it is under control everywhere,” he said.
“COVID-19 has already brought the strongest health systems in the world to their knees,” Mr Miliband said, adding that war had caused a “shocking disparity of health system capacity” in Yemen.
“The lack of testing is a major barrier to even seeing the tip of this global iceberg, let alone its full and devastating scale.”
Medical workers say they’ve been detained and threatened
Medical workers in southern Yemen told the ABC that some staff had been detained or threatened by authorities for sharing information about the outbreak on social media.
“There is no testing capacity and your authorities in the north are hiding the potency indicators,” said one medical professional who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
The cap on information has left the public largely unaware of the dangers or reliant on false information about the pandemic.
In Aden, health workers said many patients were not coming forward with symptoms due to fears of being locked in the city’s isolation centre.
One gravedigger said he had never seen such a constant flow of dead — even in a city that has seen multiple bouts of bloody street battles during the civil war. Drone footage seen by the ABC showed mass burials taking place on the outskirts of the city.
The Yemeni Government has not enforced widespread lockdown measures, curfews or social distancing to curb the pandemic.
“There are no measures taken in the north and very little in the south,” a medical professional told the ABC, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said large gatherings were still widespread according to local traditions during the Islamic month of Ramadan, while access to patients in many areas was also being hindered by the ongoing conflict.
“We have very strong reason to be afraid of the devastating impact of COVID-19 in Yemen,” he said.
Meanwhile, at least five hospitals closed in Aden over the past week, as there was no money to pay staff and no protective equipment for workers, he said.
Before the outbreak, the country’s medical system was already on the verge of collapse after five years of war and widespread famine.
There are also fears seasonal outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria and dengue, which occur frequently throughout the country, could further devastate medical resources.