Yemen’s fate hangs in balance as coronavirus spreads around the world

By Khaled Abdullah

Sanaa, Mar 12 (efe-epa).- As the coronavirus outbreak has officially taken the status of a pandemic, Yemenis are bracing for a potential spread of the disease that has so far spared their war-torn country.

Yemen is the only country in the Arab world that has not reported confirmed cases of the infectious disease that has spread to more than 100 countries outside China over the past three months.

The Arab country is uniquely unprepared for a major medical emergency of a magnitude seen in coronavirus-hit countries, with a health system decimated by five years of relentless war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of President Abdu-Rabeh Mansour Hadi.

Both sides of the war and the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed no confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported in Yemen so far.

But with more than 50 percent of Yemen’s population having little access to basic health care and less than 45 percent of the hospitals operating, Yemen is vulnerable to diseases that can be cured let alone the coronavirus whose treatment has not been discovered yet.

Authorities in Sanaa and Aden said they were doing everything they could to be ready for a possible outbreak, but that the health services were ill-equipped to respond effectively.

Health workers are testing passengers’ temperatures on arrival at two airports under the control of Hadi’s government in southern Aden and eastern Sayoun and quarantining any suspected cases.

Houthi authorities in Sanaa, however, have applied the same measures at land borders of the areas they control, and have said all people arriving from 12 high-risk countries are being quarantined for 14 days.

They also set up a 25-bed quarantine center at the backyard of a maternity hospital on the outskirts of Sanaa with funding from the WHO and the World Food Program.

Khaled al-Moayyad, who heads the disease control and epidemiological surveillance department at the health ministry in Sanaa, told Efe that the medical facilities had no sufficient resources.

“The country’s capabilities are very weak, and the resources are scarce,” he said, noting Yemen had to cope with outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria, among other illnesses.

“Even we are short of beds and equipment because we have been facing several epidemics and diseases and we are under a blockade that created great needs, let alone with the coronavirus now,” al-Moayyad said.

Al-Moayyad believes the war-ravaged country could face a major public health crisis if the virus finds its way in and the disease starts spreading.

An air blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on Sanaa airport in 2016 seems paradoxically to have helped keep the virus away thus far, as only the United Nations and international relief agencies are allowed to operate flights to the airport.

Abdul-Hakeem al-Kuhlani, a spokesman of an ad hoc committee set up by the Sanaa government to handle the coronavirus, told Efe “the already reduced travel volume has delayed the arrival of the virus.”

However, preparations were underway for all possible scenarios, according to al-Kuhlani.

“In the worst-case scenario for a potential of an outbreak, we have 45,000 health workers, and all of them will be devoted to this,” he said.

But al-Kuhlani said that health authorities of Hadi government in Aden and those of the Houthi-run government in Sanaa were not coordinating their efforts.

“Unfortunately, the health authorities in the south refuse to coordinate and cooperate with us,” he said.

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