News ID: 277386
Published: 0821 GMT November 28, 2020

Yemen: In a country stalked by disease, COVID barely registers

Yemen: In a country stalked by disease, COVID barely registers
SAM TARLING/THE GUARDIAN

A two-year old boy lies on the bed as he is recovering from malnutrition in Ataq general hospital, Yemen.

On a ward in Ataq general hospital, in the dusty central province of Shabwa in Yemen, six-month-old Muna Bassam is lying on her back, eyes closed, her distended belly moving up and down with the labor of breathing.

In the corridor outside her room, a poster shows before-and-after photos of several children admitted to the ward who have managed to recover from acute malnutrition – still painfully thin, but smiling and alert, the Guardian reported.

Muna’s family have already taken her to hospital once before. Worried about being able to pay for her treatment and fuel to return to the village, their prayers for her this time around are even more urgent.

“My wife and I had 20 children. Eleven of them died,” said the baby’s grandfather, Abdullah. “But that was a long time ago. This should not still be happening today.”

Elsewhere in the overwhelmed hospital, children are suffering with cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever, contagious diseases that have stalked Yemen since the outbreak of war six years ago. For patients and doctors here, in what the UN says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, coronavirus barely registers.

“We don’t have a neurosurgeon. We don’t have a maternity ward. We treat 20 children a month for malnutrition and now we are admitting more and more people severely ill with complications from dengue fever – more than 3,000 cases so far this year. The generator doesn’t always keep the equipment on,” says Dr. Ali Nasser Saeed, the hospital director. “Coronavirus is nowhere near our biggest problem.”

Shabwa, an oil-rich region contested by all three of Yemen’s warring parties, has been firmly under the control of government-loyal forces since last summer. The province is relatively wealthy and stable compared with other areas of the country, leading Yemenis displaced by the fighting or migrant workers sent home from Saudi Arabia to settle here.

As a result, Shabwa’s population has swollen from 600,000 to an estimated one million, and concrete and breeze-block building sites on the outskirts of Ataq have begun to encroach on the sand. Silk Road caravans used to traverse the tabletop mountains that tower above Shabwa’s plains in search of frankincense; today they have been replaced by oil pipelines and convoys of tankers.

Shabwa’s governor, Mohammed Saleh bin Adyo, appointed in 2018, has invested millions in beefing up local security forces and infrastructure projects to try to lure foreign oil companies back to the area. The fighting between the Western-backed Saudi coalition, Houthis and a separatist movement seeking renewed independence for South Yemen shows no sign of stopping any time soon, however. Al-Qaida still lurks in the desert.

 

Famine on the horizon

 

For ordinary Yemenis, the impact of war can be blunted only so far. The currency, the rial, has lost two-thirds of its value since the conflict began and continues to slide, making it harder and harder to put food on the table. A rise in food prices, coupled with devastating aid cuts, means the prospect of widespread famine is once again on the horizon.

Serious malnutrition in southern Yemen, including Shabwa, has risen 10 percent this year and is up 15 percent among under-fives, according to a study conducted by UN agencies.

In Ataq’s market square, everyone is selling but no one is buying. By 11:00 a.m., glum honey traders and shepherds sit around still waiting to make their first sale of the day.

At a sesame-oil shop nearby, owner Khaled is despondent. “Even if the electricity worked, I’ve run out of money to pay for it,” he says.

Half of the country’s health care facilities have been destroyed, hundreds of doctors have died or fled the country, and public sector salaries often go unpaid, putting unsustainable pressure on the hospitals and clinics that remain.

At the beginning of 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread from China and around the world, health workers and aid agencies predicted that the virus’s impact on Yemen’s vulnerable population would be catastrophic, forecasting a 90 percent infection rate.

Yet despite its other afflictions, so far the war-torn country appears to have emerged relatively unscathed by the pandemic, reporting just 2,124 cases and 611 deaths to date.

 

‘Very hard to tell’ COVID’s impact

 

Testing facilities and comprehensive data are almost nonexistent, so it is highly unlikely the official statistics reflect the coronavirus’s true impact. But according to several doctors and health care officials, in Shabwa at least, the virus is not a pressing concern.

A gleaming new COVID-19 testing, treatment and quarantine center on the edge of Ataq city – regarded as the best facility in the country – hasn’t received a single patient since August. Staff in head-to-toe protective gear mill around the state-of-the-art testing machine, are absent-mindedly disinfecting surfaces for lack of anything better to do, during a visit of a group of foreign journalists.

The center has conducted nearly 4,000 tests so far, only 90 of which came back positive, and Shabwa province as a whole has recorded 46 deaths.

Asked why the number of COVID-19 cases in Yemen appears to be so much lower than elsewhere, despite the absence of social distancing and extra hygiene measures, the center’s director Dr. Hisham Saeed, says “high morale” and a population that skews young have kept Yemenis safe from the coronavirus.

He worries, however, that the growing stigma associated with the disease and the difficulty of travel mean people in need of treatment are just staying at home. “It is very hard to tell what the impact is,” he says. “People think it’s a normal fever. Sometimes they ask me whether coronavirus is all just a big lie.”

Satellite imagery analysis of graveyards in the southern province of Aden, where COVID-19 appears to have hit hardest, suggests otherwise. A study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that the number of new burials in the area had nearly doubled since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in April, and there have been 2,100 excess deaths, against an expected baseline of about 1,300 by the end of September.

Analysis by the medical charity MedGlobal published in July found that at least 97 Yemeni health care workers had already died of the disease, suggesting that the true caseload and mortality figure is far higher than recorded.

For now, the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in Yemen – or at least, its first wave – appears to have subsided, allowing health care workers to focus on the country’s other urgent health crises.

Adyo has taken health care provision for Shabwa out of the weak and largely exiled central government’s hands, funding most of the operational costs at Ataq general and spending $2 million on a new hospital complex near the COVID-19 center.

Work began on the site in 1994 but the facility was never finished as funding dried up or was siphoned off by corrupt officials. In 2015 the empty building was taken over as a base by the Houthis, leading the Saudi-led coalition to bomb it.

Five years later it has been fully repaired, and construction workers are installing central air conditioning and lighting systems. Empty corridors smelling of fresh paint await medical equipment that international charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières have promised to help provide.

The new facility should have 240 beds, compared with 140 at Ataq general, and will boast dedicated maternity, cardiac and infectious disease wards. A powerful new generator system should keep the electricity on for 24 hours a day, allowing monitors and ventilators to function without interruption.

Local authorities hope the hospital will come online in early 2021, although many obstacles still stand in the way. Well-trained staff, functioning equipment and supplies of medicine are never guaranteed, even in parts of the country like Shabwa not subject to the Saudi blockade.

“I lost a little boy last week to dengue fever because we had no anti-toxins to give him. I called every hospital in the south but no one had any. Maybe he could have lived,” says the head of pediatrics, Dr. Saleh al-Khamsi. “Even if the war ends, I worry that we have already lost a generation.”

 

 

 

   
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