In Yemen, coronavirus is killing off the educated elite

The deaths of many medics, lawyers, judges and politicians are hanging heavy on the nation, health officials say

epa08478292 A Yemeni worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant on the hands of people before they enter a cemetery during a funeral procession, amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in Sanaa, Yemen, 10 June 2020. War-torn Yemen has not enforced curfews or lockdown measures to curb the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease, despite raised fears the pandemic is rapidly spreading undetected throughout Yemen.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
Powered by automated translation

Already ravaged by war and famine, Yemen is suffering another blow to its future as the coronavirus kills off dozens of the country's top public servants, academics and the most educated.

While a lack of widespread testing is masking the true scale of the crisis, scores of doctors, academics, engineers, politicians, judges, lawyers and business leaders, as well as high-ranking members of the Houthi militia, are thought to be among the dead as the virus spreads.

It is a devastating blow for a county that has already suffered six years of civil war, further scuppering hopes for recovery as the government and institutions struggle to fill the skills gap. The loss of leading members of society has also taken a toll on public morale.

The country has limited capacity to test for the virus, but The National has seen evidence that those who have died from symptoms linked to Covid-19 include: a number of prominent members of parliament; lawyer Abdulaziz Al Samawi, who helped to found Yemen's Bar Association and represented the Al Qaeda members accused of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Aden; and revered poet Hassan Abdullah Al Sharafi.

About 30 professors from Sanaa, Aden and Taiz universities have died, as have leading consultants in ophthalmology, gynaecology and other medical fields.

For people here, life is more complicated than death

High-ranking commanders in the Yemeni army who have died include commander of the Marib special forces, Col Mohammed Al Hajwri.

Several sources said that a number of members of the internationally recognised government’s health ministry have gone into isolation after contracting the virus.

The official number of coronavirus cases in Yemen stands at a little more than 500; there have been almost 130 deaths from Covid-19. An estimate of the actual number of cases is difficult to give, but according to a local union, at least 57 doctors and pharmacists alone have died.

Health professionals in Yemen said the virus has rampaged across the country and is rife in Hodeidah, Hadramawt, Ibb, Taez, Aden, Al Dhalea and other governates, with the centre being in the capital, Sanaa.

Yemen's death toll deepens as its Covid-19 crisis spirals

Yemen's death toll deepens as its Covid-19 crisis spirals

“There are a number of doctors who have died – just one hour ago I was informed that general surgery specialist Dr Mohammed Ahmed Sayed died today due to coronavirus in Al Hikma hospital,” Dr Abdulrahim Alsamie, chairman of Al Thawra Hospital in Taez, said on Thursday.

Taez is Yemen’s most populous governorate and is among those with the highest number of recorded cases.

“When the community sees the highly educated, especially those who are able to isolate from the virus, are affected, it sends a bad message,” Dr Alsamie said.

He said that there was an added problem when those people are health workers. "The first thing that comes to their minds is: ‘If those on the frontline are dying in front of us, what chance do we have?’" he said. "It’s very bad for the community."

In tandem with the pandemic, an outbreak of cholera, with 115,000 suspected cases since January, has left the country struggling to cope.

There is not enough personal protective equipment and facilities are ill-prepared.

“There is not enough equipment in hospitals and a lot of crowding,” said the General Director of Hodeidah Health Office, Dr Ali Al Ahda.

“This week, a doctor in Hodeidah called me and said there are no masks or gloves, and they have to buy them themselves because there is no official money for them.”

WHO warns coronvirus still a threat

WHO warns coronvirus still a threat

The north of the country, which is controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi militia and includes Sanaa, is facing one of the toughest battles with the virus. The main cemetery in the capital has reportedly had to close temporarily as it was inundated with bodies.

If the dead are tested at all, the results are not made public.

Discussion of the pandemic is suppressed and rumours have made people with symptoms scared to visit hospitals.

“In Houthi areas, patients are not allowed to talk about the virus. People who say, for example, on Facebook ‘I am sick and have a fever and suspect I have coronavirus’ – they are told to delete the post,” Dr Al Ahda said.

A widely spread rumour believed by many – but denied by the Houthis – is that the rebels have given hospitals orders to kill suspected Covid-19 patients with a lethal injection, meaning many do not want to seek treatment.

Dr Alsamie said that people in Taez even refuse to believe that the pandemic has reached the country.

“They say it is a seasonal virus – they don’t want to hear that there is coronavirus,” he said.

“They don’t have the ability to stay home, they don’t have food and they don’t have security. They earn their money daily and many live off $1.

“For people here, life is more complicated than death.”