Coronavirus in Yemen: A country on the brink

“For us, death is normal,” said Amal Mansoor. “But I am still afraid of the coronavirus.”

Mansoor, 28, lives in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. She’s worried because the coronavirus, which has been in the country since mid-April, is adding to the problems of a people already made weak and vulnerable by a cholera epidemic and five years of civil war.

As of early June, Johns Hopkins University had confirmed over 320 cases of COVID-19 infection in the country, and at least 80 deaths. But no one really believes these low figures. “In Yemen, we have virtually no possibility to carry out testing. We have no idea how high the number of infections really is,” said Mansoor.

Read more: Yemen braces for fresh humanitarian disaster

Deficient health care system

Mansoor told DW she once held great hopes for her country — back in 2011, when the old government was ousted in the wake of the Arab Spring rebellions. “I absolutely wanted to stay in my country, to see for myself how it would develop,” she said.

Amal Mansoor

Amal Mansoor works as a freelance journalist in Sanaa

But then everything took a different course. In 2015, the war began. “And now we have the coronavirus in the country as well. My home can’t cope with an epidemic,” she said.

As a freelance journalist for international media outlets, Mansoor has closely observed how Yemen has handled the outbreak. She relates how the few hospitals that are still intact have refused to take in infected people, partly because staff members there lack adequate protection equipment.

Read more: ‘The war in Yemen has destroyed us’

“As a nurse, I want to help and treat patients,” said Irene Versoza, a nurse at the University of Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa, in a recent report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Even if I want to treat, how can I do that without personal protective equipment? My focus would shift from the patient to worrying about if I will get infected.”

Mansoor reports that many Yemenis don’t dare go to hospitals, for fear of becoming infected themselves. She said people in Yemen have experienced many terrible things, but said coronavirus could be the final blow.

Complex conflict

A complicated proxy war has been raging in Yemen for the last five years. At its core, it’s a conflict between Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The latter, however, is backed by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Read more: Yemen war marks 5 years with no end in sight

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy, sees the Houthis as allies of its archenemy, the predominately Shia Muslim nation of Iran. The Houthis took control of large parts of Yemen in late 2014, including Sanaa, where they drove out Hadi and his government. He and Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed are now based in Saudi Arabia.

Aden, in southern Yemen, remained the provisional seat of government, although separatists overran the coastal city last August. They announced plans to “self-govern” the city and other southern provinces in April, amid a unilateral two-week cease-fire declared by the Saudi-led military coalition, later extended until the end of May. The cease-fire was meant to give the United Nations more time to mediate between the Houthis and the government.

Dozens dead each day in Aden

“The situation in Aden is very complicated,” said Mansoor. “But even in Sanaa, the situation is anything but easy.” She declined to say more about the political situation in the country.

A view of a nearly empty street is seen after precautions against coronavirus are taken pandemic in Sanaa

In an effort to control the outbreak, markets have been closed in Sanaa and other cities

But she said she is especially concerned by the coronavirus news coming from Aden, where many dozens of people are said to be dying every day. Images that have made the rounds show dead bodies lying in the streets, and there are reports of many people dying at home, especially in poorer districts. This has been confirmed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which runs the only center for treating COVID-19 patients in Aden.

Read more: Coronavirus fuels domestic violence in the Middle East

“What we are seeing in our treatment center is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the number of people infected and dying in the city,” said Caroline Seguin, who heads MSF projects in Yemen, in a statement in mid-May. “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. It is a heartbreaking situation.”

Government statistics on funerals also make it clear that many people must be dying at home: Eighty people died in Aden per day in mid-May, compared with just 10 a day before the coronavirus outbreak. Doctors Without Borders has also reported a high number of infections among carers and helpers.

Without a way to test the population for the disease, the true number of people infected or killed will remain unclear. Medical resources are also scant: There are just 500 ventilators and 700 intensive care beds available in a country with a population of 29 million. In many districts, there isn’t even a doctor.

  • A row of men wearing masks line up with their heads bowed while a man in blue scrubs, mask and headdress looks down to a body wrapped in a shroud.

    Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?

    Iran: Bearing the brunt

    With a high number of deaths and cases, Iran has been a regional epicenter of the outbreak. Several top officials have been infected and there are concerns the number of cases are higher than reported. The government has canceled Friday prayers but health workers have complained they are under-equipped. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding.

  • The imposing black square building of the Kaaba sits in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca while a line of seemingly tiny men in green sanitation uniforms clean the usually busy floor of white tiles

    Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?

    Saudi Arabia: strict measures

    Saudi authorities banned international religious pilgrims early on, leaving the Grand Mosque’s Kaaba in Mecca virtually empty. Other measures have involved sanitizing streets and mosques, closing schools and universities, an extensive travel ban and fines of up to 500,000 riyals (€120,000/$133,000) for people hiding health details. It has also locked down the Shiite-minority area of Qatif.

  • Hundreds of people stand close together in front of a big stone building, some of them wearing masks

    Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?

    Egypt: Travel restrictions

    In Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians tried to get certificates showing they have a clean bill of health after Saudi Arabia announced new travel regulations. Although Egypt has only detected a low number of cases, more than 100 tourists returning from the country tested positive for the virus. Officials have limited sermons to 15 minutes and cancelled large public gatherings.

  • A man wearing a Kippah and medical mask leans in to a crack in a large stone wall

    Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?

    Israel, West Bank: Shielding themselves from the world

    Gatherings of less than 100 are still allowed, leaving visits to the Wailing Wall open. But Israeli authorities have virtually halted air traffic in and out of its territory and tourists are required to self quarantine. The city of Bethlehem has declared a state of emergency, emptying streets usually teeming ahead of Easter. Israeli researchers have said they are close to finding a COVID-19 cure.

  • A hall for testing is lined with hundreds of well spaced apart seats. Hundreds in masks sit and wait.

    Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?

    Kuwait: Virtual lockdown

    As Kuwaitis kept their distance at this makeshift testing center, the country entered a virtual lockdown, with the entire workforce given a two-week holiday from March 12. All commercial flights have been suspended from Friday on, schools have been closed and gatherings at restaurants, malls and commercial centers have been banned.

  • Inside a makeshift wooden frame lined with plastic, a young man sprays down another with a small spray bottle.

    Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?

    Iraq: Coronavirus fails to dampen protests

    Iraq’s protest movement has set up its own makeshift disinfection stations to counter the spread of COVID-19. Although Iraq is highly prone to the outbreak due to its proximity and close relations with Iran, protesters have been defiant, saying the government is the virus. Elsewhere authorities have closed major public spaces and religious institutions have cancelled gatherings.

    Author: Tom Allinson


16 million could be infected with COVID-19

The cholera epidemic has so far infected 2.3 million Yemenis, with some 4,000 people dying of the disease. The UN fears that at least 40,000 will die of COVID-19, while more than half the population could be infected by the virus.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, believes many Yemenis could also develop severe COVID-19 symptoms due to malnourishment, according to UNHCR’s Jean-Nicolas Beuze. “It’s a tragic situation, one that is being ignored by the rest of the world,” he told Indian broadcaster Wion in a recent interview.

Mansoor also feels the catastrophic situation in the country is getting barely any attention. “Perhaps the world is getting tired of always hearing the same terrible news from my country,” she said, adding that Yemen has been pushed aside even further due to the global preoccupation with the pandemic.

Financial aid lacking

The fact that the world has turned its attention away from Yemen has had disastrous consequences. Several local aid organizations have been forced to close their doors over a lack of international financial assistance, and even the UNHCR has less money at its disposal — not even 30% of the aid money it needs for Yemen, according to Beuze. This is particularly devastating for the more than 3.6 million people internally displaced by the war, who can no longer be adequately supported.

Some hope is being placed in an online UN donors’ conference to be held on June 2 in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The conference is aiming to come up with $2.41 billion (€2.2 billion) to cover essential activities in the second half of the year, including $180 million to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Mansoor said she is still among the privileged in Yemen. She lives with her mother and two aunts in an apartment in central Sanaa, and can pay for a large share of her family’s needs with her jobs. “We follow the health recommendations and have masks and gloves. I leave the house only to do what has to be done, but I can also work from home,” she said.

But, she said, this isn’t possible for many Yemenis. “Most of them are day laborers; they can’t afford to stay at home. If they don’t work, they starve,” she said. “I am afraid that I might soon have to step over bodies in the streets of Sanaa, too.”

  • Children in South Sudan peer through a fence

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    Children in 37 countries left behind

    UNICEF’s analysis focused on children’s chances of escaping extreme poverty, getting a basic education and avoiding a violent death. It showed that 37 countries have seen a clear decline in at least one of those areas in the past two decades. The main causes? Unrest, conflicts, financial crises and poor governance.

  • A girl holds a teddy bear amid the rubble in the Syrian town of Al Bab

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    Not in my parents’ footsteps

    There have been major efforts to improve child welfare around the world over the past two decades. But despite progress, millions of children still face massive challenges caused by factors outside of their control. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, one in 12 of the world’s 2.2 billion children has far bleaker prospects today than the previous generation did 20 years ago.

  • A child stands on top of rubble in Sanaa province, Yemen

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    Consequences of conflict

    According to UNICEF, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen — all countries experiencing major conflict — have seen a decline across more than one of the three areas measured. The most dramatic change, however, was recorded in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan.

  • A sick 4-year-old boy lies on a bed in South Sudan

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    South Sudan

    South Sudan was the only country where children fared worse in all three categories than previous generations. After gaining independence in 2011, the country has been plagued by civil war and famine. Four-year-old Adeng Macher, pictured above, is one of an estimated 2 million people who are near starvation.

  • Child soldiers holding guns in Yemen

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    Growing up with war

    Violent deaths among children below the age of 19 have increased in seven countries: Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Above, armed Yemeni children ride in the back of a truck with soldiers loyal to President Hadi. The UN says hundreds of children have been killed in the country since 2015, while more than 1,000 have been recruited as child soldiers.

  • A young boy in Madagascar drags an empty jerry can

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    Surviving on under $1.90 a day

    The share of people living on less than $1.90 (85 euro cents) a day has increased in 14 countries, including Benin, Cameroon, Madagascar, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the UN, around 19 percent of the world’s children live in extreme poverty.

  • A child writes on a blackboard outside in South Sudan

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    A chance in the classroom

    The number of children getting a primary school education has dropped in 21 countries, including Syria, Bolivia, Jordan and Tanzania. The problem is most acute in West and Central Africa. Above, students take part in an English class in Bentiu, South Sudan, in 2011. Violence in the country has forced a quarter of schools to shut down, preventing an estimated 2 million kids from attending class.

  • Syrian refugees sit in a classroom

    Why millions of kids face a bleak future

    World Children’s Day

    UNICEF’s report was released on World Children’s Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1989.


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