Yemenis accuse health ministry of coronavirus 'cover-up' following string of 'mysterious' Aden hospital deaths
Reports of deaths flooded social media following a Monday night announcement by an official body saying Yemen's first and only confirmed coronavirus patient to date had recovered from the virus.
The Saudi-backed government's Supreme National Emergency Committee for Coronavirus said Yemen's only confirmed Covid-19 patient – recorded on April 10 in Hadramaut – in addition to close contacts, were tested for the virus and returned negative results.
Despite the reassuring statement, Yemenis have called out the Ministry of Public Health and Population, accusing it of deliberately concealing information on an alleged wide-scale coronavirus outbreak in the war-torn country's temporary capital, Aden.
In a public Facebook post, Osama Nasher, a Yemeni doctor residing in Germany alleged he had received private messages from ER doctors working in Aden hospitals, as well as Aden residents, notifying him of people dying after experiencing shortness of breath, fever and a sore throat – all common symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
By the time of publication, at least eight people were said to have died in Aden after experiencing these symptoms.
One person said they had reported a suspected coronavirus case to the health ministry, only for it to be allegedly brushed off as 'dengue fever,' without testing.
A source from the Health Ministry in Aden denied the allegations, saying adequate tests were being conducted on suspected coronavirus cases.
Anis Mohammad, a Covid-19 hotline operator at the Yemeni Health Ministry told The New Arab that all samples collected from suspected coronavirus cases had returned negative results.
"We are available for 24 hours a day to take calls of suspected cases and help citizens. Some are calling to ask about the coronavirus, but we are also receiving other health calls," Mohammad said.
If the ministry suspects a caller could be infected with Covid-19, they are referred to the emergency coronavirus committee for testing, and if neccessary, quarantine.
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The shutting of the testing lab left many questioning the feasibility of large-scale testing in the ailing war-torn country, and casting doubt at the ministry's figures.
"This is the first reveal from a direct health official, which might unravel the mysteries of our country which is ‘free of coronavirus'," wrote Sanaa Mubarak, hinting at an under-the-radar outbreak.
Alarmed by the deaths, Yemenis dubbed the situation in the capital as a 'medical emergency,' calling on the World Health Organization to intervene over concerns of an undetected outbreak that they said the health ministry was 'ill-equipped' to handle.
In the al-Mansoura district, two brothers reportedly died after exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.
"I am not a doctor, so I'm saying it's coronavirus. But it could also be another virus that causes these symptoms," a woman writing under a psuedonym, who identified as the daughter of one of the patients, said in a Facebook group, warning Yemenis to take caution.
The New Arab reached out to the Head of WHO mission in Yemen, Altaf Musani, but did not get a comment in time for publication.
In a press statement Musani shared with The New Arab Tuesday, the United Nations regional Yemen office said it was very likely that the coronavirus was spreading in Yemen undetected.
The UN body said health agencies were warning of "a very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated within communities."
Without explictly referring to the recent recovery announcement, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande cited aid agencies warning of a potentially rapid spread, since the initial presence of the virus was confirmed.
"The factors are all here. Low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability and a fragile, overwhelmed health system," Grande said, according to the statement.
Grande additionally said that Yemenis had received warnings to protect themselves from the virus. Many on Yemen's Facebook threads pointed to the opposite, saying they had not received any warning.
A photo circulating on Monday appeared to confirm Grande’s claim, at least within the health sector.
Read also: Hundreds of Yemeni protesters attack Aden government buildings after four days of power cuts
On Monday, a written health ministry report instructed hospital staff to use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when tending to patients admitted to the ER. Although the circular made no explicit mention of the coronavirus, it instructed all staff to adhere to measures to "prevent infection".
The international organisation said it’s working with its front-line partners to provide guidance and support health authorities in preventing transmission and equipping hospitals for Covid-19 patients.
But the organisation's efforts might not persist for long, the statement heralded.
The UN warned most of its humanitarian programs in Yemen would have to "reduce or shut" in coming weeks – potentially spelling further turmoil for Yemen.
"Health partners require hundreds of millions of US dollars for Covid-19 programmes," the statement said.
Over three million cases of coronavirus infection are confirmed globally as of Tuesday, with a toll of nearly 212,000 deaths. More than 900,000 have recovered from infection.
Gasia Ohanes is a journalist with The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @GasiaOhanes