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Yemen has reported its first deaths from coronavirus, fueling fears of a devastating outbreak in a country already enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Yemen’s Health Minister, Nasser Baoum, revealed late Wednesday that the country had recorded five new cases, two of which — reportedly a pair of brothers — had proven fatal. All the new cases were the southern port of Aden.
Previously the country had only confirmed a single case, in Hadramawt governorate in the east of the country.
“We have all been waiting for this moment and preparing for it despite our scarce [health] capabilities,” Abdul Nasser al-Wali, an official in the separatist Southern Transitional Council told Reuters. “It is very likely the numbers will increase in coming days.”
Aid groups fear that there is much more widespread transmission of the virus than the scant testing shows so far, adding to concerns of a catastrophic outbreak in a war-torn country that’s considered one of the world’s most vulnerable environments for coronavirus.
Tamuna Sabadze, Yemen country director at the International Rescue Committee, told VICE News that her organization was “extremely concerned” by the new cases.
“These are the first new confirmed cases since the first case was discovered almost two weeks ago, and shows the disease is now spreading amongst the community.”
The war-ravaged country has extremely limited capacity to test in order to track the spread of the virus, or to adequately treat those who catch it: as of last week, only about 170 tests had been carried out among a population of 30 million.
Already, the handful of detected cases are proving too much for the country’s ill-equipped health care facilities. The hospital treating most of the patients reportedly closed its doors Wednesday, saying it couldn’t receive any more patients due to a lack of protective equipment.
“Yemen has all the ingredients for coronavirus to cause serious devastation to an already fragile country, which doesn’t have the health care capacity to deal with a widespread outbreak,” said Sabadze. “It is not only the lack of testing capacity… but also the fact that over half of the country’s health facilities are no longer functioning and that 18 million Yemenis do not have access to proper hygiene, water, and sanitation.”
Yemen has been ravaged by war since Shiite rebels known as Houthis ousted the government from power in the capital Sanaa, prompting a Saudi-led military coalition to intervene in March 2015.
Years of fighting have left the country mired in a humanitarian crisis and virtually defenseless against coronavirus if an outbreak were to take hold. Already, 80% of the population is dependent on aid, with 10 million people facing famine and more than 3 million displaced and living in overcrowded settlements where social distancing and proper hygiene are impossible.
On Tuesday, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, warned that there was “a very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated,” while the U.N. Refugee Agency refugee warned that coronavirus, along with severe recent flooding that had impacted more than 100,000 people, threatened to compound the existing humanitarian crisis.
"The country is now also facing the overlapping threat of the coronavirus pandemic, and the impact of recent torrential rain and flooding,” spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told reporters.
Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire in response to the announcement of the first detected coronavirus case. But “fighting has continued in many areas across the country,” Samah Hadid, Oxfam’s director of advocacy for Yemen told VICE News.
According to the Yemen Data Project, last week fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis ramped up by a third compared to the previous week, including a number of airstrikes on civilian sites. Sabadze said the violence is hampering aid groups’ efforts to put coronavirus mitigation systems in place and deliver crucial humanitarian aid, and called on Western governments to push the warring parties to agree to a binding nationwide ceasefire.
“There is still time to intervene and launch a comprehensive response to ease the suffering of the Yemeni people,” she said. “But their suffering will not end until the war ends.”
Cover: Yemeni men read verses of Quran, Islam's holy book, on the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at the grand Mosque in the old city of Sanaa. 24 April 2020. (Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)