Coronavirus slams broken, embattled Yemen, yet Houthis deny outbreak

Security men in Sanaa, Yemen on May 6, 2020.
Security men in Sanaa, Yemen on May 6, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - In northern Yemen, more and more people are falling ill and dying after having trouble breathing, yet the Iran-backed group that controls the region, the Houthis, has acknowledged only a few coronavirus deaths.

In southern Yemen, where two groups that previously fought the Houthis together have turned on each other, mortality rates have more than tripled compared with last year.

The coronavirus appears to have slammed into Yemen, a country already staggering from five years of war, competing power centres, a healthcare system in ruins, widespread hunger and outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases.

But the denial of the outbreak in the Houthi-controlled north, the absence of clear authority in the divided south and the drying-up of aid everywhere have hobbled any hope of limiting the virus' spread, leaving healthcare workers and hospitals ill-equipped to cope with it and the public confused and suspicious of efforts to combat it.

Yemen was already facing what has been called the world's worst humanitarian crisis before the virus hit. The war, in which a Saudi-led military coalition is battling the Houthis, has taken 100,000 lives. Saudi-led airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools, while UN officials have accused the Houthis of diverting humanitarian aid.

The pandemic has generated rumours that patients were being euthanised at hospitals, causing many Yemenis to shy away from treatment. Yet when they can no longer avoid the hospital, they are regularly turned away for lack of beds, protective equipment and medical supplies.

The authorities in many places are too weak to prevent large crowds from gathering at prayers, funerals and marketplaces, or residents from travelling within the country.

The confusion and doubt are compounded by the secrecy surrounding the outbreak - officially, the country has only 282 confirmed cases and 61 deaths.

"In Yemen, we think there's no coronavirus because we don't trust our own health system," said Mr Salah Mohammed, a school security guard in the southern port city of Aden.