Health care system collapses as COVID-19 races across Yemen

As the United Nations appeals for $2 billion in emergency funding for Yemen, aid organizations on the ground warn community transmission of the coronavirus is taking place throughout the war-torn country.

al-monitor A man wears a protective face mask outside a shop amid concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Sanaa, Yemen, May 13, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

May 22, 2020

Yemen’s health care system has reportedly collapsed as cash-strapped aid agencies scale back basic services amid the country’s fast-spreading COVID-19 outbreak, the United Nations reported Friday. 

“Aid agencies in Yemen are operating on the basis that community transmission is taking place across the country,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 

“We hear from many of them that Yemen is really on the brink right now. The situation is extremely alarming; they are talking about that the health system has in effect collapsed,” he told a UN briefing in Geneva.

A five-year-long war pitting a Saudi-led military coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has devastated the country’s health care system. Half of all hospitals are not functioning, and those that remain operational suffer from severe shortages of medicine and personal protective equipment.  

Yemen has so far reported 197 coronavirus cases, but aid agencies worry a lack of testing means far more infections are going undetected. The country is only carrying out 31 tests per million people, compared to 38,394 tests per million conducted in the United States, according to the International Rescue Committee. 

“I think we’re only starting to see the tip of the iceberg in Yemen,” Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for Yemen at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Al-Monitor earlier this month. “For us, it’s been really a race against time in order to be able to prepare as much as we can for this pandemic.”

In Aden, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs the only dedicated COVID-19 center in southern Yemen. The organization reported this week that patients are arriving already showing symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome, suggesting many more people are sick at home. 

“People are coming to us too late to save,” Caroline Seguin, MSF’s operations manager for Yemen, said in a statement. “We know that many more people are not coming at all: they are just dying at home. It is a heart-breaking situation.”

The United Nations says it needs roughly $2 billion to cover essential services in Yemen from June through December. Without urgent funding, Yemenis will lose access to life-saving assistance as agencies are forced to scale back aid operations. 

The cash-strapped World Food Programme has already reduced the frequency of deliveries to Houthi-held north. Families accustomed to receiving aid monthly now receive food assistance every other month.

Last Friday, The UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA), which assists pregnant women and victims of domestic and sexual violence in Yemen, ended its services at 140 health facilities across the country. The move, prompted by a $59 million funding shortage, leaves 320,000 pregnant women without specialized care and 48,000 at risk of dying from complications in childbirth this year.  

UNFPA, WFP and other UN agencies are hoping at least some of the funding will materialize at a virtual donor conference scheduled for June 2.

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