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Yemen's health system 'has in effect collapsed' as coronavirus spreads: UN

UN says country's official Covid-19 numbers account for only fraction of actual infections
Boy in capital Sanaa wears protective face mask on Thursday amid coronavirus pandemic crisis (AFP/File photo)

The novel coronavirus is probably spreading rapidly through Yemen, where the health-care system "has in effect collapsed", the United Nations said on Friday as it appealed for urgent funding. 

A spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned in a briefing from Geneva that aid agencies in Yemen "are operating on the basis that community transmission is taking place across the country".

'Yemen is really on the brink right now. The situation is extremely alarming...the health system has in effect collapsed'

-Jens Laerke, UN OCHA spokesman

“We hear from many of them that Yemen is really on the brink right now. The situation is extremely alarming...the health system has in effect collapsed,” Jens Laerke said. 

Aid workers report having to turn people away because they do not have enough medical oxygen or sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, Laerke said. 

A flight carrying international aid workers landed on Thursday in Aden, the interim seat of the internationally recognised government, but Yemeni nationals have been doing most of the on-site work, he said.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a medical charity running the main coronavirus treatment centre in southern Yemen, has said that government authorities are reporting only a fraction of the actual number of cases plaguing the country. 

As of Thursday, MSF had recorded at least 68 deaths in just over two weeks. 

The figure - more than double the toll announced by Yemeni authorities so far - suggested "a wider catastrophe unfolding in the city", MSF said, as quoted by Reuters. 

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Aid workers are concerned that the malnourished population of war-ravaged Yemen is likely to have the world’s lowest levels of immunity to the disease. 

Yemen is currently divided mostly between the Saudi-backed government and its rival, the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in the north. There is also a recent breakaway from the Saudi-aligned coalition, the separatist forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC).

In total, Yemeni authorities have reported 184 coronavirus infections, including 30 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). But, "the actual incidence is almost certainly much higher”, Laerke said. 

'Heading towards a fiscal cliff'

The United Nations estimates that it will need $2bn to assist Yemen in maintaining aid programmes through the rest of the year, he added. 

Part of that funding effort includes a virtual pledging conference co-hosted by the UN and Saudi Arabia that is set to take place in early June. 

"It is very, very critical that the international community steps up now and at the pledging conference on the 2nd of June, because we are heading towards a fiscal cliff," Laerke said.

"If we do not get the money coming in, the programmes that are keeping people alive, are very much essential to fighting back against Covid, will have to close," he said. 

"And then the world will have to witness in a country what happens without a functioning health system battling Covid. I do not think the world wants to see that."