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Yemen: Facing COVID with Neither Masks nor Gloves

Mohamed Hasani and Abeer Mohsen
January 22, 2021
Yemen’s shambolic health infrastructure and lack of protective gear forebodes badly for effectively countering a coronavirus second wave, which experts fear will be more severe than the first.

To examine if Yemen’s various authorities are prepared to deal with a potential second wave of the feared coronavirus, the authors of this report communicated with the spokesperson of the Ministry of Health and the director of the ministry’s Sana’s office. The reporters also contacted the ministry’s offices in other governorates.

They concluded that only 13 out of 23 governorates have been provided with much needed equipment such as masks, gloves and sterilizers. Many rural areas do not even have those. Equipment that is, even in the best-case scenario, insufficient to face the virus.

As for PCR testing devices and intensive care units, they are available in the country’s main governorates, such as the capital Sana’a, Aden, Hadramout and Maarib, yet only sparsely in other governorates.

Doctors have expressed serious concerns about a second wave, the consequences of which are likely to be worse than those of the first wave, given the concerned authorities’ overall negligence and a lack of implementation of necessary measures.

“We lost many workers in the health sector, who did not receive any means of protection.”

Moreover, rumors about corruption circulate in the corridors of the ministry and its health offices. It is said some of the equipment provided by the government and health organizations operating in Yemen has been sold.

As the world struggles to obtain vaccines and equipment to contain the coronavirus, Youssef Al-Hadri, spokesman of the health ministry in Sana’a, which is controlled by the Houthi’s, praised the success of the “herd immunity” policies against the virus.

“Although the infrastructure has been greatly affected by the war, we were able to deal with the virus thanks to some facilities and equipment, and this is what we will be working on during the coming period,” said Al-Hadri.

The case in Aden governorate is similar, although the political split between the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council, which is effectively in control, has been an additional factor negatively affecting measures dealing with the pandemic.

“Due to the security and political imbalance, our equipment currently does not constitute more than 25 percent of what is actually needed,” said an official at the Epidemiological Surveillance Department of the Ministry of Public Health and Population in Aden, who for security reasons preferred to remain anonymous. “We are really not equipped to face the virus whenever a second wave will hit us.”

Lack of Equipment

“We’ve heard there are organizations logistically supporting us to confront the coronavirus and we’ve seen large trucks loaded with protective equipment, yet we haven’t received anything yet,” said Aziza Muhammad, a medical assistant at the emergency department of the Al-Thawra Governmental Hospital in Sana’a. “We work and receive suspected cases every day, but we deal with them like we deal with any other disease.”

Muhammad, a pseudonym, spoke about the suffering of doctors and staff, who do not enjoy a minimum of protection at work, as they lack preventive tools. Adding: “And they don’t have accurate testing kits in Sana’a.”

Her statements confirmed what a number of doctors and nurses working in government hospitals, quarantine centers and other health facilities have said. The lack of protection and testing equipment is especially an issue in villages and rural areas.

Available Equipment

According to the Preparedness and Response Report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in November 2020, the organization provided 40 isolation units equally divided between the northern and southern governorates. These units and the governmental hospitals were equipped with 675 intensive care beds, 11,700 oxygen tanks and 258 ventilators. In addition, 300,000 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), 7 laboratories and 333 rapid response teams were deployed.

“We now have all necessary equipment, but we suffer greatly from a lack of funds trying to cover all governorates under control of the internationally recognized government,” said Dr. Ali Al-Walidi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Public Health and Population in Aden. “Currently we are working alongside the isolation units to provide vaccines. As agreed, 20% has been allocated as an initial payment to Yemen, which will be received during the next phase.”

Asked whether the available equipment can cope with the upcoming second wave, Al-Walidi replied: “It’s enough for the time being, especially seeing that the number of recorded cases in Yemen isn’t high – we hope it will remain that way.”

In the Houthi-controlled areas, previous measures regarding social distancing and quarantine have been suspended with the possibility of re-activating them when new cases appeared, according to Dr. Khaled Al-Moayad, Director of the Epidemiology Department at the Ministry of Health. He also said that reserve teams consisting of 24 volunteers, distributed over 16 districts, can start working at any moment to restrain the virus. According to Al-Moayad, the reason for the decline in the spread of the virus in the Houthi-controlled areas is the siege imposed on them. “Our condition is better than many countries in the world” he said. “Currently we do not need vaccines.”

“Although we face gaps in providing the necessary equipment and facilities, we have worked on providing a set of training and emergency plans,” he added. “Also, local manufacturers have established a special production line for such things as vitamin C and antibiotics.”

The second wave of “Covid-19” in Yemen could be more severe.

Ravaged Health Sector

“During the first wave, we had absolutely no equipment, and the health sector was completely ravaged,” said Dr. Salem Al-Shabhi, head of the Health Committee in the Transitional Council in Aden. “The state was essentially absent and there were no centers to receive cases. Currently most of the cities under control of the legitimate government are not ready for any coming wave.”

“We lost many of our healthcare workers who did not have any means of prevention and personal protection,” said Al-Shabhi, who is also Deputy Director of the Republican Hospital, one of the governate’s main quarantines centers. “With the help of some local organizations and initiatives, we have tried to overcome this. However, many organizations are no longer working to contain the pandemic, which has worsened our situation.”

“We have an experienced crew,” he added. “Nevertheless, I personally find that the available equipment is insufficient to face any upcoming obstacles. Aden, Al Mukalla, and some cities are able to receive cases, but most cities lack healthcare professional and adequate equipment. As for what is available, it is not at the required level.”

Even before 2015 Yemen was ranked among the (Arab) world’s poorest countries, according to the World Food Program. In fact, over 24 million of a population of 30.5 million Yemenis are in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance. Some 50,000 people live in conditions comparable to famine, while 5 million live on the verge of famine. They are called upon today to confront the upcoming second wave. OCHA in Yemen warned the second wave of COVID-19 would likely be more severe, due to poverty and a lack of financial means on the one hand, and negligence and lack of awareness on the other.

This article was carried out with the support of International Media Support (IMS) in cooperation with Rozana Radio and Yemeni media platform Khuyut. 

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