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'People die in a surprisingly short amount of time': Call for urgent intervention as war-torn Yemen battles Covid-19

Experts have warned that Yemen’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse.

A nurse draws blood from a child in a hospital run by MSF in Yemen (file photo).
A nurse draws blood from a child in a hospital run by MSF in Yemen (file photo).
Image: Maya Abu Ata/MSF

EXPERTS HAVE CALLED for an urgent increase in the humanitarian and medical aid being sent to Yemen as the war-torn country struggles to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yemen was plunged into civil war in 2015, and the country has been ravaged by violence and poverty.

A five-year conflict between the Saudi-led coalition in the south and the Iran-aligned Houthi group in the north has resulted in over 100,000 deaths and millions of people being displaced.

More recently the country has also been dealing with the Covid-19 crisis – some 900 cases of the virus and at least 245 deaths have been reported to date, but many fear this is a large underestimation.

The country’s healthcare system has been devastated by the war, and NGOs have warned that it’s extremely difficult for staff and supplies to enter the country.

Over 24 million people – 80% of the population – are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, meaning it is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the United Nations.

In April, the UN’s World Food Programme warned that the coronavirus pandemic could nearly double the number of people around the world facing acute hunger and lead to multiple famines of “biblical proportions”. Yemen was among the countries predicted to be worst hit.

More than 14 million people in the country are at risk of famine, and over three million people have been displaced from their homes since 2015.

Hospitals and roads bombarded 

Ghassan Abou Chaar, Médecins Sans Frontières’s Deputy Emergency Cell Manager in Paris, served as MSF’s Head of Mission in Yemen in 2017 and 2018 and also spent some time there in 2019. Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he explained that the civil war has resulted in “crumbling health structures”.

“For four or five years the health system was degrading slowly,” Chaar told us, noting that in the north in particular, “there was a lot of bombardment of hospitals and health clinics”.

Some public sector healthcare workers have not been paid since 2017, and many have started to work in the private sector.

“The situation has created a void, especially in the rural areas where health structures were working with very minimal staff,” Chaar stated.

Some hospitals and healthcare centres were forced to permanently close.

yemen-covid-19-supply-challenges-provoke-short-term-alternativ An MSF staff member taking a baby’s temperature in the Taiz Houban clinic in May. Source: MSF/Katrin Mielck

“The problem with this gap in health provision, and with the economic situation in general in the country being very bad, much of the population can’t travel to cities to seek healthcare. Travel is expensive and dangerous, because roads were bombarded,” Chaar explained. 

And this was before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

Many hospitals have been overwhelmed and Chaar said some have stopped providing essential services.

“Some hospitals closed completely because of the staff being afraid of contracting the disease. So they stopped their emergency services, and we have seen a big increase of patients that were supposed to go to other hospitals now coming to us.”

MSF employees are working in several hospitals and health centres across the country, including four Covid-19 centres.

Difficult to send in staff and medication 

Chaar said it has been difficult to secure enough workers, medication, oxygen and personal protective equipment (PPE) in recent months.

“Sending drugs to Yemen is very difficult, sending people to Yemen is even more difficult. Airports remain closed to the public so only humanitarian flights are available,” Chaar said. He added that it is difficult to find staff to go to Yemen in the first place and, even when people want to go, securing visas can be difficult.

“It’s still very difficult to send in new staff from outside Yemen because of all the restrictions on travel. It’s getting better now, but for a period of three months we couldn’t renew staff. And in addition to that it was difficult to bring all the drugs and the protective equipment.

“It was difficult to procure enough equipment for all the staff, and to procure quality PPE as well – sometimes what we got was bad quality. In general, we were able to get enough. However, that said, that’s not the case for many other hospitals.”

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yemen-covid-19-supply-challenges-provoke-short-term-alternativ An MSF staff member's temperature is taken before he enters the Mother and Child Hospital in Taiz Houban this month. Source: MSF

Chaar said the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths reported in Yemen is likely to be much higher than the official figure – minimal testing is being carried out and many people who likely have the virus are unable to attend hospital.

“We cannot really know how much cases there are in the country,” Chaar said.

Hundreds of patients with respiratory symptoms have attended MSF’s Covid-19 centres in Sanaa and Aden, many of whom have died.

‘People die very quickly’

Describing the situation on the ground, Dr Nizar Jahlan, MSF’s Medical Activity Manager in Sanaa, said in a statement: “I have been working in intensive care units for more than 14 years, and what’s new to me is the dramatic way in which people are dying here.

“They enter the emergency room walking, but they are already deeply deprived of oxygen without being aware of it, and they die in a surprisingly short amount of time. That is shocking.”

MSF has called on the UN and other donor states to urgently send more humanitarian aid and medical equipment.

Last month Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told a briefing in Geneva that aid agencies have indicated Yemen “is really on the brink right now”.

The UN and its partners are seeking about $2.4 billion (€2.1 billion) to maintain its aid programmes in Yemen this year. 

“The situation is extremely alarming,” Laerke said.

“If we do not get the money coming in, the programmes that are keeping people alive and are very much essential to fight back against Covid-19 will have to close.

“And then the world will have to witness what happens in a country without a functioning health system battling Covid-19. And I do not think the world wants to see that,” Laerke said.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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