[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was written by a Yemeni believer from a Muslim background living in the diaspora under quarantine.]
Yemen (MNN) — Since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Yemen on April 10th, the United Nations (UN) and relief organizations have warned that the spread of the virus will have a catastrophic impact if the cases are not identified, treated, isolated, and properly tracked.
However, following through with these measures seems impossible when conflict continues to rage in hotspots around the country and the health system has “in effect” collapsed, according to the UN. Citizens are left to fear the terrifying scenarios now projected by international agencies, including the infection of half the population and the deaths of more than 40,000 Yemenis, due to the unmitigated spread of COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration dominating my neighborhood and social network,” said Shoki*, a believer who lives in the north of the country. “Many of the people around me are fearful and there is talk about the tragic way a person with this virus can die and the suffering of the victim and his family. In contrast to that, I’ve noticed how believers are a blessing, as they talk about how to deal with this pandemic in a spirit of hope and a spirit of encouragement, prayer, and following the measures of prevention and safe health practices.”
Three weeks after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the Hadramout, additional cases were confirmed in Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen’s Saudi and Emirati-backed authorities. By May 27th, the Supreme National Emergency Committee announced that 256 total cases had been recorded along with 53 deaths in areas under the control of these authorities based in the south. Just 10 cases were confirmed to have recovered.
Alongside the confirmed numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, city officials in Aden reported that more than 500 people died between May 8th and May 16th alone, many with breathing difficulties. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), government burial statistics reveal a current death rate of 80 people per day in the city, up from a pre-outbreak average of 10. One gravedigger told The Associated Press he’d never seen such a constant flow of dead — in a city that has seen multiple bouts of bloody street battles during more than five years of war.
Experts explain that the rise in the overall number of deaths suggests that the COVID-19 figures announced so far may not reflect the reality on the ground. This is due to extremely limited capacity to test for the virus combined with the parallel spread of other fever-producing illnesses including malaria, cholera and dengue fever. With very limited resources, many Yemenis only seek medical care in the latest stages of an illness, which makes treatment more difficult. Others do not seek treatment at all and die in their homes and are buried without ever being examined for the cause of death. Besides an inability to afford medical care, Yemenis with symptoms may also choose not to seek testing or treatment out of fear of the stigma that comes with having COVID-19.
“We’ve seen videos of health authorities in the northern areas dealing with the suspected cases that are reported to them, and they are arresting the people as if they are criminals,” said Ali*, a believer living in the north. “So, of course, many people are not reporting suspected cases out of fear of these security measures. We also heard stories of people traveling from the southern governorates to the north and how they were quarantined along the way. The quarantine conditions were terrible; there weren’t enough bathrooms and not enough space for the number of people.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in the northern Houthi-controlled areas where Ali lives cannot be verified amid alleged deliberate misinformation and possible misguidance by Houthi authorities. Additionally, families are not reporting those that are sick with acute breathing problems, or who have died with these symptoms at home. Videos are circulating on social media showing dead loved ones being carried away and buried in secret.
In this environment, believers in the hardest-hit areas of Yemen told me they are overcoming their sadness and fears by turning them into a driving force to pray and to encourage one another to follow reliable advice about treatment and prevention.
“We pray for each other that the Lord Jesus will deliver us from this pandemic,” a believing woman said. “It has brought us closer to Him and brought us closer to each other as His children in Yemen. We’re trying to spend more time with our children, teaching them and praying together and praying for the salvation of our people.”
Following COVID-19 prevention guidelines is a matter of life or death for Yemenis, since a visit to any hospital or health center quickly reveals a dire shortage or total lack of the drugs, medical equipment, ventilators, and even beds needed to treat the now surging number of COVID-19 cases.
Another of the believing brothers in Yemen, Nagi*, says, “I have a chronic illness, so I’m at a higher risk of death if I contract something else. Not only that, I know that if I got infected, I could easily pass it to my wife and children. The worst thing is to think that I could make my friends and loved ones sick. I keep telling myself to stay home to protect my family, my friends, and myself.”
Without the minimum resources needed to properly treat COVID-19 patients, a lot of medical facilities are refusing to admit suspected cases of COVID-19 at all. There are even stories circulating about Yemenis dying at hospital doors after being refused treatment. I have personally lost two of my own family members living in Yemen in the last two weeks to undiagnosed illnesses that included breathing difficulties. Meanwhile, some of my neighbors there were thrown out of a hospital after they started experiencing severe difficulty breathing. They went from one hospital to another and were repeatedly turned away because they were presenting symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 infection, including respiratory distress, fever, and weakness. Finally, they returned home to die since the life-saving treatment they needed was simply not offered.
Lack of awareness about the seriousness of COVID-19 and about the importance of personal protective measures like social distancing are contributing to its rapid spread in Yemen, so believers are trying to model these practices to those around them. This has not been easy in Yemen’s communal culture.
“We’ve stopped giving a kiss of greeting as we’re accustomed to doing, and I feel embarrassed because the women I would normally exchange visits with don’t understand the importance of social distancing,” a believing mother said.
All across Yemen, COVID-19 is deepening the economic crisis as prices go up on food, masks, soap, and other basic supplies, in an economy already devastated by five years of war.
“My work as a home goods vendor was affected by the spread of Corona,” said Hasan*, a believer living in the north. “Despite this pressure, I feel that God is with me and my family and I’m confident that His doors won’t close even when others do.”
Like Hasan, believers around the country have been affirming their confidence in God as they do their best to follow the measures recommended for slowing the spread of the virus.
“Even in light of the difficult conditions we’re facing, we feel that the Lord Jesus is with us,” a believing sister told me. “We feel His mercy and closeness to us. A lot of people complain about emptiness and boredom because of the need to stay at home more, but I’ve found it to be a valuable opportunity to pray, draw closer to God, and feel the affection of His hand outstretched to His children.”
Although believers in Yemen face the same desperate conditions and lack of resources as the society around them, they do have one resource, a relationship with the Author of Life, that sets them apart.
“I and many others are feeling the great pressure that the spread of this virus has added to our lives,” said a believer named Naser. “But when I search, I find that we, the believers, carry hope that helps us with the certainty that tomorrow will be better and that by the will of our Lord we will pass through this and all the anxieties and fears surrounding us.”
When I hear from my brothers and sisters inside Yemen, it gives me the courage and strength to face the on-going quarantine in the country where I’m living now. I also feel a strong burden to pray for them as I know they will fight the battle against COVID-19 with far fewer earthly resources than most countries around the world. Let us stand in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Yemen in these days, even as they stand with us.
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*Names changed for the security of believers in Yemen.