Yemen: in a country stalked by disease, Covid barely registers | Global development | The Guardian
Shabwa, an oil-rich region contested by all three of Yemen’s warring parties, has been firmly under the control of government-loyal forces since last summer. The province is relatively wealthy and stable compared with other areas of the country, leading Yemenis displaced by the fighting or migrant workers sent home from Saudi Arabia to settle here. As a result, Shabwa’s population has swollen from 600,000 to an estimated 1 million, and concrete and cinder-block building sites on the outskirts of Ataq have begun to encroach on the sand. Silk Road caravans used to traverse the tabletop mountains that tower above Shabwa’s plains in search of frankincense; today they have been replaced by oil pipelines and convoys of tankers.Shabwa’s governor, Mohammed Saleh bin Adyo, appointed in 2018, has invested millions in beefing up local security forces and infrastructure projects to try to lure foreign oil companies back to the area. The fighting between the western-backed Saudi coalition, Iran-supported Houthi rebels and a separatist movement seeking renewed independence for South Yemen shows no sign of stopping any time soon, however. Al-Qaida still lurks in the desert.For ordinary Yemenis, the impact of war can be blunted only so far. The currency, the rial, has lost two-thirds of its value since the conflict began and continues to slide, making it harder and harder to put food on the table. A rise in food prices, coupled with devastating aid cuts, means the prospect of widespread famine is once again on the horizon. (...)
Half of the country’s healthcare facilities have been destroyed, hundreds of doctors have died or fled the country, and public sector salaries often go unpaid, putting unsustainable pressure on the hospitals and clinics that remain.At the beginning of 2020, as Covid-19 began to spread from China and around the world, health workers and aid agencies predicted that the virus’s impact on Yemen’s vulnerable population would be catastrophic, forecasting a 90% infection rate.Yet despite its other afflictions, so far the war-torn country appears to have emerged relatively unscathed by the pandemic, reporting just 2,124 cases and 611 deaths to date.
Testing facilities and comprehensive data are almost nonexistent, so it is highly unlikely the official statistics reflect the coronavirus’s true impact. But according to several doctors and healthcare officials, in Shabwa at least, the virus is not a pressing concern.
Asked why the number of Covid-19 cases in Yemen appears to be so much lower than elsewhere, despite the absence of social distancing and extra hygiene measures, the centre’s director Dr Hisham Saeed, says “high morale” and a population that skews young have kept Yemenis safe from the coronavirus.He worries, however, that the growing stigma associated with the disease and the difficulty of travel mean people in need of treatment are just staying at home. “It is very hard to tell what the impact is,” he says. “People think it’s a normal fever. Sometimes they ask me whether coronavirus is all just a big lie.”Satellite imagery analysis of graveyards in the southern province of Aden, where Covid-19 appears to have hit hardest, suggests otherwise. A study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that the number of new burials in the area had nearly doubled since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in April, and there have been 2,100 excess deaths, against an expected baseline of about 1,300 by the end of September.