Health

Houthis block COVID-19 vaccine in Yemen, actively spread disinformation

By Al-Mashareq and AFP

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A relative comforts a Yemeni man on April 8 as he visits the grave of his wife, who was heavily pregnant and had been suffering from breathing difficulties. She died after being turned away from three hospitals in Houthi-controlled Sanaa over fears she was infected with coronavirus. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

The Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have been blocking international efforts to supply COVID-19 vaccines, and have actively spread disinformation about the virus and vaccines, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday (June 1).

HRW accused Houthi leaders of suppressing information about both the dangers of COVID-19 and the prevalence of the disease in territory under the group's control -- most of north Yemen, including Sanaa.

According to the United Nations, the number of confirmed cases in Yemen has doubled since a second wave of the virus began to spread in March.

"Nevertheless, the Houthi authorities in Sanaa have maintained a policy of withholding data on cases and deaths," HRW said.

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Houthi fighters take part in a funeral ceremony for Yahya al-Shami, assistant supreme commander of the Houthi forces, in Sanaa on April 27, a day after his death due to COVID-19. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

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Employees transport boxes containing vials of the AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD vaccine against the coronavirus, upon the arrival of the first shipment at Aden's airport on March 31. [Saleh Obaidi/AFP]

"No vaccines have reached areas under Houthi control."

"The deliberate decision of the Houthi authorities to keep the real number of cases of COVID-19 under wraps and their opposition to vaccines are putting Yemeni lives at risk," said HRW's deputy Middle East director Michael Page.

"Pretending COVID-19 does not exist is not a mitigation strategy and will only lead to mass suffering," he said.

"Given the weakened healthcare system in Yemen, Houthi authorities should at least ensure transparency so that civilians living in their areas can understand the scale of the pandemic and facilitate an international vaccination plan that meets the needs on the ground," he added.

'Drastic rise' in number of cases

As of early 2021, the Houthi-controlled Health Ministry in Sanaa has reported only one COVID-19-related death, four confirmed cases, and two recoveries since the pandemic began, HRW said.

It noted that the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said informal indications are that cases are rising in the north.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) reported in March that its teams in Yemen were seeing a drastic rise in the number of people seriously ill with COVID-19.

Several Houthi officials reportedly have died with COVID-19-associated symptoms over the past few months.

"In the second wave, more and more people are becoming sick," a Yemeni medical worker in Sanaa told HRW.

"We receive dozens of people every day, 70% of them come with COVID-19 symptoms but our medical facility is not equipped at all to receive COVID-19 cases," the medical worker said.

"We have to consider all suspected cases as COVID-19 considering how limited the testing capacity is," another medical worker told HRW.

"We ask patients to stay at home because our medical facility is overwhelmed with patients and our beds are always full."

Many medics have lost their lives as well, according to the Syndicate of Yemeni Doctors and Pharmacists, and have been hampered in their response to the health crisis by an already failing health sector and a lack of medical equipment.

Corruption and conspiracy theories

Yemen received 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 31, the first of 1.9 million doses to be delivered this year through the Covax programme for poorer countries.

Under the Yemen COVID-19 National Vaccination Plan, the Houthi authorities were to receive vaccines to distribute in areas under their control, including Sanaa, Ibb and al-Hodeidah provinces.

But the Houthis' failure to co-operate with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Yemeni government has prevented any vaccines from reaching the north, HRW said, citing a medical source with "direct knowledge of the circumstances".

As a result, vaccinations only have been administered in the government-held south.

HRW quoted Houthi officials as dismissing COVID-19 as a "conspiracy".

"Health workers interviewed said they believed that the Houthis were refusing to acknowledge the pandemic to keep the economy fully open and to allow the political elite to syphon off exorbitant fees imposed on businesses," HRW said.

The Houthis have sharply increased revenues over the past two years by engaging in a number of predatory and corrupt practices, according to the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies.

In April 2020, in the early stages of the global pandemic, Al-Mashareq reported that the Houthis had been imposing levies on Yemeni citizens and merchants, claiming the money was going to combat the pandemic.

The Houthi-controlled Central Bank of Yemen in Sanaa announced, through pro-Houthi media outlets, that the Central Bank and CAC Bank and their branches would receive donations for the fight against coronavirus.

Yet many believed the Houthis were using the funds they collected to build up their war chest, and to date there is little evidence the militia has invested in efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

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