Yemen has officially reported only one case of the coronavirus, but there are reports that other cases are being kept under wraps so as not to discourage potential fighters from joining the war.
“The commander told us that the safest place from the virus is the front line. Allah is on our side there and if we die we are going to be martyrs, heroes, and our families will be given money. After all, the virus has not reached [Houthi-controlled] Sanaa yet, and bullets are much faster than the coronavirus’ slow suffocation death,” a young man on his way to join Houthi fighters in Marib told Al-Monitor.
But the virus apparently has reached Sanaa, the capital. Four suspected coronavirus cases were identified in the first week of April and the patients have been in isolation at the Movenpick Hotel in the city, according to a medical professional who has been working with the teams handling the cases. This information was shared reluctantly and anonymously, cautioning against exposing their identity.
“The cases must remain a secret. If the Houthis find out the news has leaked, there will be severe consequences. They don’t want the people — especially potential fighters — to be scared and distracted from the main cause, which is winning the war against the Saudis and their Yemeni allies,” he said.
On April 2, Mohammed Abdulqudoos, deputy director of Yemen's official Saba News Agency, tweeted that a case of the virus that causes COVID-19 had been discovered in Sanaa as a woman coming from Saudi Arabia tested positive and was placed in isolation. He quickly retracted his tweet and said it was only a suspected case and the woman did not have the virus after all.
However, the medical professional and other sources told Al-Monitor about the existence of positive cases, and with every informant a new piece of Yemen's COVID-19 puzzle falls into place.
As a preemptive measure, the Movenpick Hotel was designated for such cases, supervised by the endemic combating authority, because of its isolated location. The hotel has been disinfected, medical staff have been trained and shifts have been scheduled.
Testing kits and personal protective equipment were disseminated last month in both Houthi-controlled areas and that of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government. Medecins Sans Frontieres has provided support to the Ministry of Health and set up a COVID-19 isolation unit in Aden in the first week of April. The World Bank has pledged $26.9 million for Yemen to fight this virus. Yemeni medical teams have been shown how to use the equipment, but more resources are needed. In Sanaa, around 350 people have been tested; they were Yemenis who returned to the country prior to the lockdown. Most of them were coming back from Mecca pilgrimages. Two of the four people are sisters, and according to the medical professional, all four patients are recovering well and have not needed ventilators.
A directive dated April 18 by the endemic combating authority to the capital secretariat and other provinces under Houthi control stated that people who are currently in quarantine must complete their 14-day isolation and then be allowed to return home.
More than 80% of Yemen's 29 million inhabitants are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance because of the war that began in 2015. Yemen was a poor country to start with, with a weak health system and prevalent epidemics such as cholera, malaria and dengue fever. And now deadly floods threaten the lives and livelihoods of Yemenis.
Yemenis joke that the COVID-19 virus has been traveling around the world and decided to skip Yemen because the other diseases have it covered. The first official coronavirus case wasn't reported until April 10, in Hadramout; the patient has recovered and has been discharged from the hospital.
The Saudi-led blockade on Yemeni ports has probably helped delay an outbreak in the country, and the Houthis’ military regime has appointed two lookouts in every neighborhood to keep track of any suspicious illnesses or deaths and report them to the authorities. The lookouts are authorized to move people who display symptoms to isolation, and to move the dead to specific burial places. The Houthis decided to dedicate plots of lands for mass burial if needed, according to a journalist working in Sanaa who asked to remain anonymous.
There have been many awareness campaigns in the local media. The journalist told Al-Monitor that the municipal authorities in Sanaa carry out regular meetings with reporters to supervise the campaigns and to keep a lid on any rumors. According to him, there are 400 ventilators dedicated to the outbreak, although only half of them were ready for use as of April 14. Other regions can't claim the same level of preparedness, whether they are controlled by the Saudi-backed Hadi government in Marib and Hadramout or the secessionist Southern Transitional Council in Aden.
It is uncertain how Yemen will be affected by the virus if it does spread throughout the country. Humanitarian agencies are anticipating a wide outbreak that the country's fragile infrastructure will not be able to handle.
Despite attempts at a cease-fire to coordinate preparation for the virus, escalation and the armed conflict continue in Yemen. For the time being, the top concern of most Yemenis is not COVID-19 — it is surviving the war and putting food on the table. That is their reality today.