"The virus is now in Yemen," and there's little left in the war-torn country to stop it.
Amman, Jordan — Only 10 coronavirus infections and two related deaths have been reported in war-torn Yemen to date, but there's mounting fear that COVID-19 is poised to wreak havoc on a country that was already struggling with a humanitarian catastrophe before the pandemic.
"The virus is now in Yemen and may quickly spread," Lise Grande, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement late last week. "The factors are all here: Low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability, and a fragile, overwhelmed health system."
Yemen has been pummeled by a series of man-made disasters for years. Neighboring powerhouse Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the government in a seemingly endless civil war, has led a five-year bombing campaign and maritime blockade, choking off vital supplies to most of Yemen's 30 million inhabitants.
Long before the coronavirus disease was even identified, Yemen's health services had already collapsed, millions of children were starving and diseases such as cholera and diphtheria — considered obsolete in most of the world — were flaring up. The United Nations had already labeled it the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Samah Hadid, Oxfam's director of advocacy in Yemen, estimates that 80% of Yemen's population needs emergency aid right now, more than any other country in the world.
"The Yemen humanitarian response is underfunded. Yemen desperately needs international aid to cope with COVID-19 and other humanitarian needs," she told CBS News. "An estimated 4 million displaced people live in overcrowded camps and settlements which makes social distancing incredibly difficult and increases people's risk to the virus."
The fear is that these desperate circumstances may be hiding many more than the 10 COVID-19 cases the world knows about. Yemeni health officials in the war-ravaged south of the country tell CBS News they're trying to contain the outbreak, but they lack detection equipment. One official said they have only "a handful" of COVID-19 tests in the region.
The official, who asked not to be named, lamented the lack of support from the global community for the decimated region. He admitted that "with the political complications in Yemen, north and south, and the ongoing heated war fronts, it is quite difficult to respond properly."
The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control the more densely populated northern part of the country insist they've detected no coronavirus cases yet at all.
Wearing gloves and a face mask, the Houthi administration's Health Minister, Dr. Taha al-Mutawakel, warned against "fear and panic" in a news conference in the capital city of Sanaa.
"The enemy wants to push the coronavirus to Yemen to exhaust its population," he claimed, accusing the Saudis of exacerbating the crisis. He insisted the rebel government was ready for a possible outbreak, however. The Houthis have shown off a hotel in Sanaa that has apparently been converted into an isolation facility to handle any COVID-19 patients.
Senior Yemeni doctor Dhekra Annuzaili tells CBS News that both the rebels in the north, and the Western and Saudi-backed government in the south, need "shock therapy to jolt them out of reckless denial of the threat posed by the disease across all of Yemen."
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