The lives of civilians in Aden are being pushed into the abyss not only due to epidemic, disease, and fallout from flash floods but because of violent clashes between opposing factions of the Saudi-led Coalition.
ADEN, YEMEN — Southern Yemen’s port city of Aden is quickly becoming the new epicenter of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The streets of the city are awash in garbage and many have become mosquitoes-filled swamps, the result of historic floods that ravaged the city earlier this year. City officials have done little to address what has become a public health crisis, and their wealthy Saudi-Colation backers have yet to invest any significant capital in cleanup or repairs.
Today, Yemenis are confined to an environment infested with overlapping disasters of biblical proportion thanks to a deadly combination of war and public health crises. In addition to cholera, dengue fever, and malaria, the novel coronavirus and the chikungunya fever are spreading like wildfire in a nation caught between a crippling Saudi blockade and violent clashes on the ground.
“Here, we bury 60 to 70 dead bodies every day,” one 35-year-old volunteer told MintPress News as he stood inside the Radhwan cemetery in the neighborhood of Memdarah in Aden’s Sheikh Othman directorate. Sources at the al-Jumhouri Public Hospital told MintPress,” we were receiving dozens of patients from dengue fever, but now we are facing both chikungunya and COVID-19 and the death [toll] is higher than you can imagine.”
Doctors in Aden say that some of the symptoms of chikungunya, a viral disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes, are similar to those of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, including muscle aches, fever and difficulty breathing.
This week, at least 15,000 people have lost their lives from a combination of illnesses, including a yet to be identified mysterious epidemic, as well as COVID-19, cholera, dengue fever, malaria, and chikungunya fever, health officials in Aden, told MintPress. “We do not know the real cause of [these] deaths, but if even minimal medical support is provided to Yemeni families, they would have a chance to keep their loved ones alive,” they said.
Like much of Yemen, the coronavirus outbreak in Aden is spreading like wildfire, claiming hundreds of lives as the city’s population has some of the lowest levels of disease immunity. Xavier Joubert, the director for Save the Children in Yemen said in a statement that COVID-19 is pushing this country even further into the abyss,” adding that, “The surging deaths in Aden suggest that the virus is spreading far faster and further than the number of confirmed cases.
Since the first of May, the Status Department in the city has documented more than 1,500 cases of deaths due to epidemics and COVID-19. While Save the Children in Yemen revealed that at least 385 people have died in the past two weeks with coronavirus-like symptoms in the southern city of Aden.
Official figures put the number of confirmed COVID-19 at 193 cases nationwide, with 33 deaths. MintPress spoke to the head of three NGOs as well as medical working on the ground in Yemen that both the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 have surged to dozens times higher than official estimates. That official infection and mortality rates in Yemen are inaccurate is no surprise as the country’s infrastructure lies in ruins following years of more than five years of Saudi-led war and blockade.
Furthermore, only a limited number of COVID-19 victims in Yemen are able to reach hospitals, owing to poverty and fear of quarantine. Most Yemenis are poor, making it impossible for them just to stay at home while the virus is circulating – they are forced to go out to earn or collect the basic necessities of life.
Healthcare workers abandon their posts
“It is very difficult for us to know whether or not the people we are treating have coronavirus. We do not have testing equipped to diagnose the condition,” a doctor who works at the al-Jumhouri Public Hospital told MintPress; he left the hospital last week over what he said was a lack of PPE to keep him from getting infected.
As a result of a lack of medical equipment, particularly testing and personal protective equipment (PPE), healthcare workers have begun to abandon Aden’s hospitals. A lack of testing equipment means that many patients with COVID-19 symptoms are being turned away. Even before the virus appeared, the Saudi-led coalition did little to support the city’s infrastructure and instead poured millions into strengthening its military control over the whole country’s southern provinces. Aden was declared the de facto capital of Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition after the Houthis gained control of much of the country, including the capital city of Sana’a, in a popular uprising in 2015.
Generally, Yemen lacks the testing capabilities, protective equipment, respirators, ventilators, and even goggles needed to control the spread of COVID-19. But even the simplest things which residents are supposed to rely on to slow down the spread of the virus, such as frequent hand-washing and basic sanitation, are difficult when so much of the population lacks access to clean water and food.
Save the Children recently reported that the entire country of Yemen has just 700 intensive care unit beds, including 60 for children, and 500 ventilators for a population of about 30 million. So far only 803 tests have been conducted, according to Erin Taylor, a Save the Children spokesperson.
COVID-19 fails to curb infighting
The lives of civilians in Aden are being pushed into the abyss not only due to the epidemic, disease, and the fallout from flash floods but because of violent clashes erupted that last week between opposing factions of the Saudi-led Coalition.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner in Yemen, is seemingly exploiting the world’s preoccupation with coronavirus to fulfill its strategic objectives in the country. On 26 April, the head of the largest UAE-backed militant southern separatists group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), Aidarous al-Zubaidi, announced from Abu Dhabi that the group would impose emergency rule in Aden and all southern governorates that were part of the former British colony before the unification of Yemen in 1990. The measure would give the STC control of Aden’s seaport and airport and other state institutions such as the central bank.
Saudi Arabia and the government of ousted president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi have rejected the declaration of self-rule by southern separatists. For his part, UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said the STC’s declaration is concerning. Since the declaration was made, violent clashes between Hadi’s forces and the STC militants have taken place in Yemen’s south, particularly in Abyan. Amidst the tit-for-tat, hundreds of civilians and fighters were killed and injured.
Meanwhile, residents in Aden, Abyan, Hadhramout, and al-Mahrah complain that they have yet to see any tangible measures to curb the public health crisis by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or any other members of the coalition waging war in Yemen who claim to act in the best interests of the locals. Instead, they say, they only see military reinforcements on all sides.
The world’s worst humanitarian crisis
Many Yemenis in Aden who spoke to MintPress say that “After five years of bombing and supporting their local militants, the least they [Saudi-led Coaltion] should do is to rehabilitate health facilities.”
In fact, the country’s entire healthcare system, like Aden’s, is in ruins thanks to the heavy bombing of civilian infrastructure by coalition countries, often with bombs supplied by the United States and other Western countries. That reality leaves Yemen in need of a sweeping effort – with extraordinary international support – to limit disaster of coronavirus and the other epidemics it faces.
Truly, the spread of coronavirus has caught almost every country off guard, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arabic Emirates, the same countries responsible for the lion share of destruction wrought upon the population of Yemen during five years of bombing, and a blockade which has been supported by the United States.
Residents of Aden told MintPress that they blame the United States for the disease and damage. Thekra Abbas Ali, a Yemen journalist who works for Sana’a Radio said that the U.S., which had impeccably bad timing in suspending aid shipments to areas of northern Yemen, intentionally deepened the humanitarian and health crisis in the country amid COVID-19 at a time when international support is more important than ever.
All this comes at a time when at least 80 percent of the 28 million-strong population is reliant on aid to survive in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Moreover, Yemen, which has already been pushed to the brink of famine by five years of war, could see a catastrophic food security situation due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Monday.
Today, Yemen needs not only to stop the war and lift the blockade but also to provide desperately needed relief for the vast majority of the population, at least for those who still live in coalition-controlled territory such as Aden. But with no hope for this to come, Yemenis feels their disasters are even more likely to be overlooked than before, especially when many other countries are also struggling with their own public health crises.
Feature photo | Security men wearing protective masks stand on a street during a 24-hour curfew amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus in Sanaa, Yemen, May 6. Khaled Abdullah | Reuters
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.