Hundreds die in Yemen of suspected coronavirus outbreak

CAIRO (AP) — Over 500 people have died over the past eight days in southern Yemen’s main city, Aden, many with breathing difficulties, city officials said.

One gravedigger told The Associated Press (AP) he’d never seen such a constant flow of dead. Condolence messages for deaths in Aden have streamed out on Twitter and other social media for days. Some report multiple deaths within a single family.

With little protective equipment, health personnel are terrified of infection. Many medical facilities in Aden have closed as staffers flee. Others turn patients away. No one is answering a hotline set up by United Nations (UN)-trained Rapid Response Teams created to test suspected cases at home, residents and officials said.

“If you are suspected of having the coronavirus and you are in Aden, most probably you will wait at home for your death,” said Deputy Head of the city’s Health Office Mohammed Roubaid.

Officially, the outbreak in Yemen is small. The official count from the south is 106 cases and 15 deaths. Houthi authorities who control northern Yemen said there have been two infections, one of whom died, a Somali migrant.

Yemeni medical workers wearing masks and protective gear talk to patients at a hospital in Aden. PHOTO: AP

In the north, the Houthis are suppressing any information about the scale of the outbreak, even as doctors tell the AP of increasing cases and deaths. The Houthis refuse to release positive test results and are silencing medical staff, journalists and families who try to speak out about cases, doctors and other officials said.

A surge in deaths this month in north and south has raised the nightmare scenario that the virus is spreading swiftly in a country with almost no capacity to fight it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said models suggest that, under some scenarios, half of Yemen’s population of 30 million could be infected and more than 40,000 could die.

WHO provided some 6,700 test kits to Yemen, split between north and south, and said another 32,000 are coming. It said it is trying to procure more protective equipment and other materials.

From May 7 until last Thursday, Aden’s civil registrar recorded 527 deaths, Head of the Office Sanad Gamel told the AP. Save the Children, in a statement last Thursday, said 385 people died in Aden with COVID-19-like symptoms the past week.

Authorities in the south announced the first confirmed coronavirus case on April 10.

But aid agencies believe the virus had been actively circulating in Yemen since March. Doctors may have missed it in part because of an outbreak of Dengue fever and Chikyungunya after major flooding in April left entire sections of Aden submerged in sewage and water for weeks.

At al-Qateea, one of the smallest of the city’s six cemeteries, gravedigger Abdullah Salem, said he receives 10 to 15 bodies a day, 10 times more than normal.

He said he doesn’t know how to deal with the bodies, because burial permits list no cause of death.

“Is it corona, Dengue, or TB? We have no clue and people are afraid,” he said.

Outgoing Head of Aden’s sole isolation centre at al-Amal Hospital Zakariya al-Qaiti said he had no doubt about the cause. “I can affirm that coronavirus is outbreaking in Aden.”

Fearing infection, many health facilities are shutting their doors. At least three doctors have died of COVID-19, according to a Health Ministry official.

Nabil Abdel-Bari, a young businessman suffering from shortness of breath and fever, was refused entry from four hospitals, said his friend, Assem Sabri. He died days later at home.

In the Houthi-controlled north, doctors in three provinces, including the capital Sanaa, told the AP they have seen increasing numbers of suspected coronavirus cases and deaths. All spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they are under Houthi surveillance and have been warned not to speak about cases.

In the first week of May, a surge of patients entered the COVID-19 treatment centre in Sanaa’s Kuwait Hospital, said four officials. One official said 50 of them were likely infected with the coronavirus, and of those 15 died.

In Ibb province, a local official said at least 17 had died. In Dhamar province, a local medical official said at least 10 suspected cases had been hospitalised and at least two people had died.

WHO said it is trying to get more protective equipment and medical supplies. Agency’s Chief in Yemen Altaf Musani said that has been difficult because of various travel restrictions and competition with other countries.