68 Yemen Covid-19 deaths ‘tip of iceberg’ says MSF

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Medecins Sans Frontieres treatment centre in Yemen – MSF warn that Yemen’s health system will be overwhelmed if Covid-19 spreads Photo credit: Peter Casaer/MSF

THE DOCTORS Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres – MSF) main Covid-19 treatment centre in Aden in southern Yemen has recorded at least 68 deaths in just two weeks.

‘What we are seeing in our treatment centre is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of people infected and dying here,’ the MSF operations manager for Yemen, Caroline Seguin, said last weekend.
Since March 2015, Yemen has been heavily invaded by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, trying to restore power to ex-Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
The Saudi coalition also aims to crush the popular Houthi Ansarullah movement, whose fighters have helped the Yemeni army defend the country against the invaders.
Ceaseless Saudi airstrikes and the destruction wrought by the kingdom’s mercenaries and armed militia loyal to Hadi have wiped out much of Yemen’s infrastructure, destroying hospitals, schools and factories.
The Covid-19 disease has further deteriorated the humanitarian situation in the impoverished country, where 80 per cent of the population are reliant on international aid for survival.
Yemen is asking the international community to pressure the Saudi-led coalition, which has been attacking the impoverished country for five years now, into letting in medical supplies.
Last week, the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that Yemen’s health system is already under heavy stress and will be overwhelmed ‘if Covid-19 continues to spread.’
The so-called regime led by Hadi has, since April 10, announced only 180 infections and 30 deaths from the coronavirus.
But the MSF said last Thursday that its centre in Aden had admitted 173 patients from April 30 to May 17 alone, at least 68 of whom had died, suggesting ‘a wider catastrophe unfolding in the city.’
Even so, inadequate testing capacity makes it hard to pin down exact numbers but dying patients ‘clearly have the symptoms of Covid-19’, it said.
The MSF said endemic diseases like malaria and dengue ‘never produced so many deaths in such a short amount of time’ in the country.
‘People are coming to us too late to save, and we know that many more people are not coming at all: they are just dying at home,’ the medical charity added.
The United States-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), described as a nonprofit conflict-research organisation, estimates that the war has claimed more than 100,000 lives over the past five years.
In Yemen, MSF doctor Ghazali Mohammed Babiker and his team are fighting back against a double crisis – the arrival of the Covid-19 in a country where years of brutal conflict have left a healthcare system already in crisis.
He said: ‘We at MSF have seen many things while working in Aden: we kept our hospital open during the darkest days of fighting in 2015, and are used to receiving hundreds of wounded in just a few hours, like we did last August.
‘There is something uniquely sad about the outbreak of Covid-19 in the city, however: the catastrophe we all feared was coming is now here.
‘The crisis is real … we see its effects every day in our hospital, with people struggling to stay alive and many not making it.
‘We are running Aden’s only Covid-19 treatment centre at al-Amal hospital, where we have a team of Yemeni and international staff working around the clock to provide the best level of care that they can.
‘Like in all other countries afflicted with this virus, however, we are seeing just how deadly it can be.
‘From 30 April to 17 May we admitted 173 patients, at least 68 of whom have died.
‘This is a very high level of mortality, but it compares to what we have seen in Europe and the US: studies have shown that around half of patients admitted to intensive care units with Covid-19 are dying. Covid-19 is a horrible and deadly disease.
‘In Aden, patients are coming to the hospital very late. If they arrive when they are already having severe difficulties breathing then it becomes more and more difficult to save them.
‘While staying at home is the right thing to do if you have mild symptoms, if you start to have difficulty breathing then it is really important to go to the hospital.
‘It is very difficult for our staff to see patients arriving, gasping for breath like a fish out of water, and to know that it is too late to help them, no matter how hard they work.
‘We also know that many people are dying at home: the statistics for burials in the city show that around 80 per day took place in the last week, as opposed to ten in normal times. This shows us that in the centre we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many people are infected and dying of the virus in the city.
‘We are also seeing that medical staff in the city are getting sick, which is another way we can tell just how widely the virus is circulating.
‘While it is true that there are other illnesses endemic to Aden, we are sure that what we are seeing is Covid-19, even if the authorities do not have the capacity to test everyone and confirm it.
‘Dengue, malaria, chikungunya: these diseases can be deadly, but they do not kill the number of people in the short space of time that we are seeing.
‘That is why it is so important for people in Aden to take this disease seriously. With an invisible virus it is sometimes difficult to feel that this crisis is real. It is not like the war, when we could all hear the shooting and see the bombs going off.
‘The crisis is real, however, and we see its effects every day in our hospital, with people struggling to stay alive, and many not making it.
‘Everyone must play their part in limiting the spread of this virus, therefore.
‘We need to avoid going out as much as possible, but if we have no choice then we should stay at least one metre distant from people when we do, avoiding physical contact.
‘If you have a fever or a cough then you need to stay at home to avoid spreading it to other people.
‘Most cases of Covid-19 will be mild, but if you start to have difficulty breathing, you need to seek medical help.
‘It has been a real challenge to open up the treatment centre at al-Amal.
‘Everyone all over the world is learning how to deal with this virus, but countries like Italy and France have the advantage of a good healthcare system. In Yemen, by contrast, years of war have left the healthcare system destroyed.
‘The team have put in so much effort since taking over the centre in early May, but the pride in that work is tempered by the sadness of what we see.
‘We are doing the best we can to help Aden through these dark days, but we cannot respond alone. The United Nations and other donor states must to do more to help Aden, and the rest of Yemen.
‘The country needs money to pay health staff, the healthcare staff need more personal protective equipment to keep them safe, and patients need more oxygen concentrators to help them breathe.
‘The world must not leave Aden and the rest of Yemen to face this crisis by themselves.’

  • United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered officials at the department under his watch to find a way to justify the use of an emergency declaration meant to expedite the $8 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, CNN reported last week.

Four sources in the US State Department told the TV channel last Friday that they were stunned by the request to justify the emergency declared in May 2019 by Pompeo that enabled him to sidestep a congressional ban on arms exports to the Riyadh regime amid the war on Yemen.
Under Pompeo’s order, the sources said, State Department officials had to ‘reverse engineer the situation to provide the justification for a decision which was made in an aggressive and unconventional manner.’
‘They seemed to have a game plan and it had to be justified,’ said a State Department official.
‘The attitude was very Trumpian,’ he added, referring to US President Donald Trump.
Pompeo’s demand sent offices at the US State Department, with the regional office, the political military bureau and the legal office all set into motion to figure out how the emergency could be justified, according to the sources.
Riyadh is the largest buyer of American-made weaponry. Trump signed an arms deal worth $110 billion with Saudi Arabia in May 2017 on his first foreign trip since becoming president.
Before his presidency, he described the kingdom as ‘a milk cow’ which would be slaughtered when its milk runs out.