Deaths from coronavirus-like symptoms surge in Yemen's Aden
Six years of war against the Houthis – and a widening fault-line among forces opposed to that rebel outfit – have left authorities ill-equipped to control the spread of the virus.
The first coronavirus case in Aden, the government's interim capital, was only recorded about a month ago.
But since then, the total number of deaths registered in the city has "increased seven-fold", according to Saddam al-Haidari, a physician at a public hospital.
Hospitals have stopped admitting patients with symptoms of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus in recent days, several health sources told AFP, since they are not equipped to deal with the virus.
Many doctors in Aden have deserted their posts because they don't have access to protective gear, these sources added, while several hospitals have even closed down, according to Save the Children.
"Our teams on the ground are seeing how people are being sent away from hospitals, breathing heavily or even collapsing," said Mohammed Alshamaa, Save the Children's director of programmes in Yemen. "People are dying because they can't get treatment that would normally save their lives."
Save the Children said on Thursday that authorities in Aden have reported an average of 50 deaths per day since 7 May.
That's five times higher than the baseline average of 10 deaths a day in more normal times, according to the international aid group.
"In the past 24 hours alone, more than 86 deaths have been reported in Aden due to several epidemics and fevers," said Sanad Jamil, who heads the Civil Affairs Department, which issues death certificates in Aden.
Testing for coronavirus is available only at a central public laboratory, but the supply of kits is insufficient. That means many suspected cases have not been tested, according to Yasser Bamallem, a doctor at the Al-Jumhouriya public hospital.
Bamallem is in no doubt about what is driving the rising death rate, because before expiring, many displayed symptoms in line with COVID-19 and distinct from other illnesses.
"With the spread of coronavirus, the death rate surged," he told journalists.
"We were already fighting against dengue fever and chikungunya, which are transmitted by mosquito bites – but deaths were very few," he explained.
"We are on the verge of a catastrophe in Aden."
Yasser al-Nassiri, director of the private Al-Kubi Hospital, said that the closure of other hospitals has put pressure on his facility. His staff are receiving 400 patients daily, up from 150.
Yemen's health system has all but collapsed since the conflict broke out in 2014, with more than two thirds of the population dependent on aid for survival, according to the UN. The main theatre of Yemen's war pitches an internationally recognised government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Cancer patients – the other victims of Yemen's war
For more than three years a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia has been fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even hospitals are not safe from the bombing raids. Those who fall seriously ill can expect little help.
Expensive treatment: Khaled Ismael kisses the right hand of his daughter Radhiya. The 17-year-old cancer patient's left arm had to be amputated. The father could not afford better treatment, although he sold what he could and even borrowed money: "The war has destroyed our lives. We couldn't go abroad, so my daughter didnʹt receive the treatment she needed"
No government support: Yemenʹs National Oncology Centre in Sanaa has not received any government support for two years. The cancer centre is now financed through international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and donations from charities and business people
Only for children: the few beds available in the cancer clinic are reserved for children. The centre admits about 600 new cancer patients every month. Last year, however, the facility only had one million dollars to spend on treatment
Cancer therapy in the waiting room: adult patients at the cancer clinic are treated intravenously – on rickety camp beds or in the waiting room. Before the war, the centre received approximately $15 million a year in support and was even able to provide cancer drugs for other clinics in Yemen
Lack of relief supplies: a patient waits for her treatment at the cancer clinic in Sanaa. But there is a dearth of medical supplies in Yemen. The Saudi-led military coalition has severely restricted air and sea links. This was intended to stop the delivery of weapons to the Houthi rebels, who control large parts of the country and the capital
Too few doctors: Ali Hizam Mused, 70, has a tumour in his mouth. An aid organisation in Sanaa provides him and other cancer patients with shelter. There is not only a lack of beds, but also of doctors. Medical personnel are hard to find in Yemen. Moreover, many people cannot afford treatment
Humanitarian crisis: Fourteen year-old patient Amena Muhssein Owaid stands in a home for cancer patients run by a relief organisation. Millions of people in Yemen are at risk of malnourishment and diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and malaria. According to UN estimates, 50,000 people have already died as a result of the war
The Houthis stormed the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and Aden was set up as the government's interim seat months later.
But tensions between southern separatists and the central government have further muddied the waters, with the self-proclaimed Southern Transitional Council declaring self-rule in the south on 26 April.
Fighting between pro-government troops and separatist forces on the outskirts of Zinjibar, some 60 kilometres from Aden, has killed more than 20 since early May (those numbers don't feed into the death tolls quoted above).
Nassiri said authorities are not paying enough attention to the health crisis, blaming the recent flareup in fighting in the south.
Aden, home to 550,000 people, has taken virtually no preventive measures against the pandemic. There are no quarantine facilities for those who do test positive in the city.
"The situation in Aden has got out of control and is expected to implode further based on the number of daily deaths and cases," Bamallem lamented.
At least three doctors have died since 7 May, the local Al-Ayyam daily cited authorities as saying, but without giving the cause of the death.
Yemen's internationally recognised government has so far declared only 122 confirmed novel coronavirus cases, including just 18 deaths.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the country's war, which the United Nations views as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. (AFP)