The UN is anticipating 16 million Covid-19 cases in Yemen on top of what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the global body’s aid chief in the country said on Monday.
Lise Grande outlined the “most likely scenario” in which 55 per cent of Yemen’s war-ravaged population became infected.
The pandemic has struck millions and shut down economies around the world.
Aid teams in Yemen are rushing to prepare the 300,000 hospital beds needed to meet the expected cases, including 200,000 in intensive care units, in a nation where many clinics have been destroyed by war, Ms Grande said.
“If you’re faced with that kind of staggering problem, one of your reactions is to put up your hands and say there’s nothing you can do,” she said in an online briefing hosted by Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Yemen recorded its first case of the coronavirus in the eastern province of Hadramawt this month.
It was unclear whether curfews will slow the spread of an outbreak that has infected more than 3 million people and killed at least 215,000 around the world.
Ms Grande said she was working on the assumption that lockdowns would not prevent the pathogen’s spread, given Yemen’s malnourished population and a crumbling healthcare system after years of war, instability and under-investment.
The UN said about 80 per cent of Yemenis relied on handouts.
The immune systems of millions have been compromised by hunger and malnutrition, and diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever.
Ms Grande said modellers claimed three factors – acute levels of vulnerability, some of the lowest levels of immunity across the population, and a very fragile health system – would challenge the fight against coronavirus in Yemen.
"Unless we’re able to suppress transmission of Covid it could spread faster more widely and with deadlier consequences than in most other countries,” she said.
Ms Grande, the UN’s resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Yemen, said five teams were travelling Yemen to test the ailing for Covid-19 and track down those who may have been in contact with carriers.
The medical workers included Yemeni and foreign staff.
Some were temporarily taken off their work battling Yemen's cholera outbreak, which had infected an estimated two million by January.
Health workers were explaining to Yemenis, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes, the importance of washing their hands with soap and other tips that could stop transmission of the coronavirus.
But aid experts said that Yemen was ripe for a catastrophic outbreak of the disease, as many people have no access to soap or water, and because social distancing is impossible in refugee camps.
Stephen Morrison, a health expert at the think tank, told the same briefing that Yemen was “on the edge of a resource cliff” after sea and air blockades, and the lack of testing kits, ventilators and protective gear.
Save the Children said only half of Yemen’s hospitals were fully operational and the Arab world’s poorest nation has only about 700 intensive-care beds, including 60 for children, and about 500 ventilators.
A major coronavirus outbreak would also come after the US, a major donor, last month began cutting funds to the country’s north because of obstruction by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control the region.
Over the weekend, the Aden-based Southern Transitional Council declared self-rule for the south, breaking a power-sharing deal with the government and hurting the chances of a ceasefire that was announced this month.
The Houthis drove President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s government from Sanaa towards the end of 2014, prompting military intervention in 2015 by the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia.