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In the news: Yemen reports first coronavirus deaths

Fears grow that COVID-19 has been spreading, undetected, in a country unequipped to deal with a major outbreak.

Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
A health worker disinfects a market amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, in Sana'a, Yemen, on 28 April.

Yemen’s government announced on Wednesday five COVID-19 cases and two coronavirus-related deaths in the southern city of Aden, raising fears the virus has been spreading undetected in the country since a first case was reported more than three weeks ago.

Nasser Baoum, health minister for the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, confirmed the two COVID-19 deaths on TV while also noting similar symptoms to other diseases prevalent in Yemen, including dengue fever. 

Earlier in the day, the government announced that five people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Aden, which has also been hit hard by recent flash floods. It was unclear if the two deaths were among these five cases.

Yemen’s main southern political group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), had declared “self-administration” in southern provinces and Aden – also the official seat of Hadi’s government – over the weekend. After the cases were confirmed, it put in place a 72-hour curfew.

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The STC and Hadi’s government are separate parts of the fractured Saudi Arabia-backed coalition that has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen for five years, leading to a massive humanitarian crisis and the decimation of much of the health system. A Riyadh-brokered agreement in November ended several months of clashes between the STC and forces that support Hadi, but the deal was never fully implemented.

Saleh Alnoud, a UK-based spokesperson for the STC, told The New Humanitarian that the group, which aims to take over administration and service provision of Aden and other parts of the south, is “worried that a lack of testing may not have revealed the true numbers” of COVID cases. 

On Tuesday, the office of Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement that there was a “a very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated within communities. This increases the likelihood of a surge of cases which may quickly overwhelm health capacities.”

Alnoud said there was a lack of ventilators, testing kits, and the personal protective equipment needed to deal with the outbreak. Hadi’s government has failed to provide services for people in Aden and elsewhere in the south, “leading to great degrees of hardship”, he added. 

Hadi’s government and Saudi Arabia have criticised the STC’s move, with the former calling it “dangerous and catastrophic”.

– Annie Slemrod

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