As Yemen prepares for the second wave of COVID-19, a doctor recalls how she faced the pandemic alone, after colleagues fled the hospital, and how fake news that went viral hampered the assistance that was delivered. could have offered.
Zoha Aidaroos al-Saadi, a 29-year-old doctor, remembers the moment she stood behind a red line quickly painted in the center of his hospital. On the other end of the line there was a single patient, with difficulty breathing.
For weeks, the line hadn’t been necessary. There was hardly a subtle warning that the pandemic raging in other nations could eventually reach Yemen. But now, al-Amal hospital, in the southern city of Aden, had the first patient suspected of being infected with coronavirus there.
Zoha approached the line, terrified. The rest of the medical staff made it there alone as well. When he asked them what was wrong, they told him that they had supplied the man with oxygen, but did not want to have any more contact with him. The last he knew was that all his colleagues had abandoned the hospital completely.
“There was no response. He kept calling them and yelling … There was no one left. ” The hospital administration says, however, that they did not leave the hospital.
No staff and no infrastructure
For the next two weeks, Zoha and a single nurse were alone treating dozens of patients.
He did not blame his colleagues. Although al-Amal had been designated by the government as the hospital to treat covid in the city, it was completely times equipped to assume that role. He did not have enough personal protective equipment, almost no oxygen tank, and only seven respirators. During those two weeks, he was unable to save a single patient’s life.
Zoha had been waiting in dread for the moment when the pandemic hit Yemen. While she and her mother were glued to the television news, watching the coronavirus ravage the world’s most developed countries, her thoughts immediately turned to her homeland.
The six years of war in Yemen have had a devastating impact. More than half of the health centers have been destroyed and two-thirds of the population depends on assistance to survive.
The Yemen conflict
- In 2014, Houthi rebels, who belong to a Shiite Muslim minority, seized the capital, Sana’a.
- President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi established a temporary capital in the southern city of Aden, before fleeing to neighboring Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the Saudis and eight other predominantly Sunni Arab states launched a campaign of air strikes against the Houthi, claiming they were armed by regional rival Iran. The Saudi-led coalition has received logistical support from the US, UK and France.
- There have been clashes between those who are apparently on the same side. In August 2019, fighting broke out in the south between Saudi-backed government forces and the allied separatist movement, the Southern Transitional Council (CTS), which accused President Hadi of mismanagement and ties to Islamists.
- Al Qaeda militants in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and local affiliates of the rival group Islamic State (IS) have taken advantage of the chaos to gain territory in the south and carry out deadly attacks, particularly in Aden.
However, neither the authorities nor the state broadcaster mentioned anything about the covid-19. Somehow that reassured Zoha. “If they didn’t talk about it,” he told himself, “maybe they do have everything under control.”
Still, when he learned that the World Health Organization was coordinating a training conference for covid in his country, he decided to sign up.
Participants were instructed on how to protect themselves from the virus and how to safely treat covid patients. Although she found the training helpful, Zoha was very fearful. He was well aware of the current state of the hospitals in Yemen, particularly the one in Aden, where he would be working.
“They were giving us training but we didn’t have the supplies or the infrastructure to apply anything they were teaching us.”
It wasn’t long before the covid began to spread through Aden. When other hospitals in the city were unable to cope with the situation and more than 12 doctors working there died possibly due to covid-19, they closed their doors.
Queues at the entrance
Ambulances and cars driven by the patients’ relatives flooded the al-Amal hospital parking lot, all waiting for the beds to be vacated.
There was but nine beds in the makeshift covid ward where Zoha worked. Each had its own oxygen cylinder, but when it was finished, there were no support personnel to refill them. It was up to Zoha and the nurse to take care of that.
But on many occasions, in the midst of the crisis, they couldn’t do it, so patients died of suffocation.
Zoha remembers how a patient looked at her as she desperately tried to meet the demand in the ward, when the oxygen in the cylinder ran out.
“He could see that I had panicked. He took my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, my dear, I know my time has come and it’s not your fault, you’ve done everything you can.’ He died a few hours later.
Zoha constantly asked for help from the government, both by contacting it directly and by pleading on Facebook, but received no response.
Come May, there were so many international press reports about the effect of the coronavirus in Yemen that the government finally had to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. He asked for direct help from the NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
In a few days, MSF arrived in Aden and took over the administration of al-Amal hospital, with much needed supplies and staff. They also set up a temporary hospital for covid inside a wedding hall that was next door.
Zoha was no longer alone.
“I was outside crying, it was too much,” says Zoha. She says that an MSF doctor saw her and said the words she had been waiting for from her own government: “Force, we are with you and the situation will improve, I promise you.”
With someone in charge and providing direction and support, the local hospital staff returned.
“Patients used to leave the hospital in a white plastic bag, now they left on foot. It was like going from hell to heaven, ”Zoha told me.
But that relief was short-lived. Trouble was brewing. An audio recording shared on WhatsApp went viral in Aden. In the recording, the narrator claimed that MSF staff at al-Amal hospital were killing covid patients with lethal injections.
“They were words without evidence,” a local doctor told me who asked to remain anonymous. “They said that the terminally ill and about to die were given euthanasia injections. It was crazy but people believed it“.
Both Zoha and MSF indicate that the number of patients arriving at the hospital for treatment dropped dramatically after the recording.
One patient, struggling to breathe, told Zoha that he had to beg his brothers to bring him to the hospital because they believed that once they took him away, they would euthanize themselves.
Clashes in the hospital
But malicious rumors kept pouring in, doctors claim. On one occasion, a group of armed men forcibly entered the hospital. The staff said they threatened them. According to them and MSF, the armed men were greeted and guided by the head of Zoha, the hospital administrator.
Dr. Zachariyah al-Ko’aity’s role had been temporarily suspended while MSF oversaw the al-Amal administration, and now he accused members of that NGO of stealing hospital equipment.
He had previously shared a video on Facebook showing supplies being taken out of the hospital and loaded onto trucks. MSF explained to the BBC that what they had done was return the equipment they had borrowed from another facility in Aden.
For his part, Al-Ko’aity told the BBC that he had entered the hospital to check the supplies and that when they were not allowed, armed guards intervened to separate a confrontation between him and the hospital’s own security. He denied that no one had been threatened or attacked.
Such events can seem extraordinary in a country that is desperate for assistance in dealing with a pandemic. But political vacuum Created by the ongoing war in Yemen, plus a government-in-exile, have generated a culture of chaos and mistrust, as local officials vie for power.
Furthermore, local media act as propaganda channels financed by rival factions, so the public relies on social media to be informed, which facilitates the spread of rumors.
On July 25, MSF withdrew from al-Amal hospital, citing security concerns. He moved to other hospitals in Aden, but there, too, he said he faced friction from the administration and, after six weeks, he left the city altogether.
It is believed that thousands of people have died of covid in their homes, afraid to seek medical assistance.
Yemen’s health minister declined to give an interview but told the BBC that his government’s relationship with MSF was excellent and that in a large number of governorates MSF fulfills its humanitarian mission.
Accountand of dead
The havoc that the virus has wreaked in the city of Aden is seen at al-Radwan cemetery, the closest burial site to al-Amal hospital, some 10 miles away.
Undertaker Ghassan soon realized the gravity when the bodies came faster than I could bury them.
“I asked my friends for help, but they also got sick. There were so many deaths that there was no time to eat, ”he says.
It is difficult to know the numbers of deaths from covid in Aden. Little or no testing has been done for the virus, so it is very difficult to establish how many people who have died during the pandemic had COVID. But Ghassan has kept his own record.
The families of the deceased gave him a certificate with the cause of death. He recorded the name of every person he buried who died at al-Amal hospital with covid-related symptoms.
He told me that only in May – when the pandemic reached its peak in the city – buried more than 1,500 people. The death rate in the city was six times higher in May, compared to the previous year, according to official records.
“It was amazing,” Ghassan told me. “That was the first time I had seen something like this. It was worse than war ”.
For now, the COVID situation has stabilized relatively in Aden, Zoha notes. She now works with a different medical facility run by the International Committee of the Red Cross and says few are testing positive for the virus at this time.
“People here believe that the virus is gone, but scientists say it is not true.”
As in many countries, Yemen is expected to soon suffer a second wave of the pandemic.
“We will be as badly prepared as in the first one. They [el gobierno] they haven’t learned anything ”.