Yemen in Focus: Despite rumours, thousands test negative for coronavirus in war-torn Yemen

Yemen in Focus: Despite rumours, thousands test negative for coronavirus in war-torn Yemen
This week we focus on Yemen's coronavirus measures.
7 min read
19 March, 2020
No coronavirus cases have been reported in Yemen [Getty]
Thousands of Yemenis have been tested for the deadly novel coronavirus that has spread through much of the globe, authorities have confirmed, noting all the results have come back negative in the war-torn country.

Yemen's health ministry assured it had provided tests for some 32,000 travellers entering through the Al-Wadeeah land port, which has now been closed as part of measures to keep COVID-19 out of Yemen, according to figures reported by Almasdar Online.

In the north, Yemen's Houthi rebels have also taken precautionary measures by closing entry points between rebel-held and government-controlled territory around the country. Earlier in the week, the rebels also suspended passenger flights in and out of Sanaa airport.

Despite thousands of rumours floating around the country, numerous sources have confirmed Yemen has not to date announced any cases of the COVID-19 illness, but the poor state of the country's health infrastructure after five years of war would mean that such an outbreak could be catastrophic.

"There are no confirmed cases in Yemen though there are thousands of potential rumours," WHO Yemen representative, Altaf Musani said on Tuesday. 

Read more: Financial reports expose millions of dollars in lavish UN 'corruption' budget

"Authorities continue to track arrivals from a number of entry points, including land, air and sea. Specifically, there have been 4,515 that have been tracked and screened through those entry points and almost 80 percent continue to have follow up checks for 14 days after the initial screening," Musani said.

The UN agency, which has Rapid Response Units present across Yemen's 23 governates, has been actively working to deal with the rumours, checking up on potential cases across all districts in the country. Testing laboratories have been set up across Yemen's three foremost major cities, including the rebel-held capital Sanaa, government-held Aden in the south and the eastern city of Hadramaut.

"There are at least 26 ports of entry throughout Yemen, including land, air and sea and we have worked with authorities to make sure there is screening to take temperatures and report travel history. If confirmed, they are taken to quarantine," Musani said.

Yemen is already one of the most impoverished states in the Middle East, but its infrastructure has further deteriorated in the last five-years because of an ongoing conflict that pits the Houthi rebels against the government-backed Saudi-led coalition.

More than 100,000 people have already died since the war broke out in 2014 and was exacerbated by the Saudi-led military intervention just months later in March 2015.

"The hospital system and overall health sector in Yemen is fragile and we don't want everyone overrunning the system, we want people to follow the process and know when to self- quarantine, in addition to all other protective measures to protect yourself, community from the virus," Musani said.

"There is a shortfall in testing capability but we are working to increase this. Beyond the testing there is making sure there is medical isolation and treatment a number of hospitals have started to prepare isolation units," Musani added, noting an immediate need for personal protection equipment, including gloves, gowns and goggles.

"We continue to work with all partners to step up materials needed to detect, treat, trace and isolate. We are learning from all different countries to learn how to deal with this virus. We need to use this time to prepare ourselves and systems and families, we know people are worried and want people at this point to have information and knowledge," he added.

Speaking to The New Arab, Physician Dr Ashwaq Moharram said Yemenis across the country have been informed of three main precautionary measures designed to help ease the pressure off Yemen's already dwindling health sector.

"There are three types of quarantine - the first and most important of which is self-isolation for a period of weeks at home for cases from cities where symptoms may have emerged. These cases are in close communication with Rapid Response units that examine the progress," the Hodeida based doctor said.

"The second type is institutional isolation, as is the case in Hodeida which has seen 8 different sites open up to accommodate this," she added, noting most are set up across land and sea port areas to help track travellers entering the country.

"Finally, there is medical quarantine which is taking place at hospitals. However, due to the current economic situation in Yemen and the ongoing embargo that has come with the conflict, we are at a shortage of essential medical equipment. Even if there are medical supplies, many people cannot afford to buy them."

Yemen's devastating nearly-five-year war has introduced air strikes, death and poverty to a nation that was already listed as one of the most impoverished in the world. Throughout the conflict, hundreds have died by a range of diseases that spread across the country, including cholera, malaria and dengue fever. 

Read more: How many coronavirus cases are there in the Middle East?

"War, siege, poverty, and low or no income have weakened the health of citizens overall, making them an easy victim of the disease if it spreads," Dr Moharram, who herself recovered from the dengue fever just weeks ago, said.

"However, because of all that they have seen, there is no panic over COVID-19," she added.

Meanwhile, a group of Yemeni women have revived the country's oldest factory to make face masks in anticipation of a coronavirus outbreak, AFP reported.

The factory, located in the capital Sanaa, sees "rows of desks line a cavernous hall with women in black niqab and white gloves hunched over sewing machines meticulously assembling medical masks", according to AFP.

Unlike its Gulf neighbours, Yemen has not taken drastic measures to prevent the virus' spread. However, it is less vulnerable to imported infections, with most of the country under siege and air travel severely restricted.

On Wednesday, Houthi rebels evicted thousands of students from Sanaa University's residential dormitories as part of measures against the novel virus.

The move demanding all students leave from the halls, which accommodates some 2,600, was announced by the Sanaa-based Charitable Housing Administration.

The rebels took control of the foundation in 2015 shortly after capturing the capital city, using some of its building as centres for its loyalists to spread its teachings.

Also this week, Geneva-based SAM Organisation for Rights and Liberties called on Yemen's conflicting authorities to release all detainees in held across prisons in Yemen as a precautionary measure against the virus.

As of yet, there are no known treatments for the virus, though more than 85,797 have already recovered from the infection

Poor conditions, a lack of health, medical and humanitarian conditions across prisons in the country could lead to the rapid spread of the disease and thus introduce a serious epidemic in the war-torn country, the organisation said.

"SAM calls on the Red Cross, the UNSE office and the World Health Organisation to take urgent action in pressuring the parties to the conflict in Yemen to release the detainees and to take urgent humanitarian initiatives in this regard," a statement read.

Global pandemic

The COVID-19 virus, which was first detected in China's Wuhan in December, has killed more than 9,149 people worldwide, while over 223,082 infections have been confirmed.

The majority of those that infected with corona experience only mild or moderate symptoms, including fever and a dry cough.

However, concerns have been raised for the elderly and those with existing health issues, who have reportedly suffered with more severe complications, including pneumonia and even death.

The World Health Organisation this month estimated the novel coronavirus kills 3.4 percent of all those infected.

But for people aged over 80 the fatality rate was 21.9 percent, according to a report the WHO carried out with the Chinese authorities.

As of yet, there are no known treatments for the virus, though more than 85,797 have already recovered from the infection.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed those who experience a milder version of the virus recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

As the pandemic continues to spread across the world, dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine while governments continue to impose strict restrictions or "lockdowns" to help stem the spread of the virus.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino