Yemen's COVID-19 Fight: 'We've Only Just Begun'


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SANAA/ISTANBUL - Outside the gates of the Old City in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, crowds of people gathered to buy clothes and food last week as they fasted for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.

It was also crowded inside the ancient walled city, where 23-year-old Mohammed Ali Al-Khawlani made clay pots for cooking traditional Yemeni food. Like many people in Sanaa, he was not attempting "social distancing" because of the coronavirus.

"We break our fast each evening in the mosques," Al-Khawlani said. "Or sometimes groups of 15 or 20 people meet in the streets to eat."

Yemen has closed airports and schools and restricted some travel by land, but people in Sanaa were still shopping, riding in crowded buses and gathering for religious services as COVID-19 cases spiked to 85 on May 14, more than doubling their number of cases in just five days.

The World Health Organization says a mass outbreak in Yemen would be an unmitigated disaster amid war, famine and floods already plaguing the country.

The Houthi government that runs Yemen's north says Sanaa has had only two cases, but the government that controls Yemen's south has called its regional capital, Aden, "infested" with the virus and accuses the Houthis of under-reporting cases.

The WHO also assumes there are many more cases than they know of in Sanaa, said Altaf Musani, the organization's Yemen representative, in an email to VOA on Wednesday. Roughly half the population of Yemen is at risk for starvation or diseases like cholera and 80 percent of the people rely on humanitarian aid. A widespread outbreak in Yemen would be a "potential catastrophe," he said.

"At present we do not even have enough gloves, masks or other personal protective equipment for all doctors and nurses," explained Musani. "No one is safe until everyone is safe - Yemen was one of the last country's to declare - we've only just begun."

Economic grief

At a bus station in Sanaa last week, Omar Ali, 56, waited for hours to get to the front of the queue and collect passengers.

Since the pandemic began, he has lost more than half of his business, he said, but still, he is getting by.

"My sons are also working," he explained as the sun started to set ahead of the end of the day's fast. "But other people are not as lucky."

He had a mask in his hands, but he wasn't wearing it.

Like other countries, Yemen's economy has declined rapidly in recent months. But unlike other countries, Yemen started off with very little to lose. At least three out of four people in Yemen live under the poverty line and the United Nations Development Fund says Yemen may become the poorest country in the world by 2022.

The Houthis, officially known as Ansar al-Allah, have been battling the United Nations-recognized southern government for nearly six years in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people. Both sides have powerful international allies, like Saudi Arabia, which regularly hurls airstrikes into Sanaa.

"We are already oppressed by bombs and battles," said Ali, the bus driver. "God would not send us the virus."

Growing fear and failing health system

Other locals say they are increasingly afraid of the virus, saying the psychological stress is already hard to bear.

At a restaurant serving traditional food last week, 28-year-old Mohammed Abdullah Hezam, the manager, wore a mask and gloves, unlike most people in the streets.

"The virus worries me more than the war because wars have solutions," he said. "There are a thousand solutions for war, but so far none for this virus."

In another nearby restaurant, Ahmed Mohammed, 35, sold Yemeni food, sandwiches and smoothies. He said the virus is particularly upsetting because Yemen's health care system is in shambles.

"They can try to fight the pandemic if it spreads here," he said. "But they will never win."

Hospitals in Yemen need ventilators, monitors, beds, ambulances, protective clothing, X-rays, medicine, lab materials and scanners, according to Riyadh Al-Jaridi, the Health Director of Hadramout province, where Yemen recorded its first COVID-19 case last month.

Individual preventative measures, like sanitizing items and wearing masks and gloves, are widely known, but most people cannot afford them, Al-Jaridi said. Even extra cleaning is difficult, with more than half the country lacking enough clean water for drinking or bathing.

Workers cannot afford to stay home, and many people simply do not care about social distancing, Al-Jaridi added.

"Yemenis have gone through so many tragedies," he explained. "The wars and poverty have made people indifferent to threats."