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War-ravaged Yemen facing deadly new threat in COVID-19

Violence in Yemen is surging after a six-week cease-fire prompted by the coronavirus pandemic ended in May. The war-ravaged nation has been facing disease and hunger for six years already, and COVID-19 is now pushing a devastated health infrastructure to the brink of collapse. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was near dawn today that two large explosions rocked Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, smoke billowing in the morning sky. The missiles came from Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

    Violence in Yemen is surging, after a six-week cease-fire prompted by the pandemic ended last month. The war-ravaged nation has been facing disease and hunger for six years now.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Every day, in Yemen's southern city of Aden, they're digging more fresh graves, struggling to keep up with the rising body count, rows of deep mud holes ready to accept the dead, as families bury their loved ones quickly, with little ceremony.

    In this cemetery, many of the graves have already been filled. These are busy days for gravediggers like Mohammed O'Baid.

  • Mohammed O’Baid (through translator):

    Thankfully, yesterday and today have been better, with less funerals. Before, we had about 50 to 60 dead a day. We hope to God that people live longer.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Officially, there have been fewer than 300 deaths in Yemen from the virus. But the bodies keep coming. And with limited testing, there is no real way of knowing how many people across the country are sick and dying.

    War, hunger, and disease have already ravaged people here for six years. Now, death stalks the country again in a new cloak.

  • Man (through translator):

    We hear of so many cases of people dying, and sometimes from our friends in other places too. Recently, our next-door neighbor died, and no one knows why.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Yemen, the virus is only the latest in a long list of calamities. The war here broke out in 2014 when Houthi rebels seized control of the capital, Sanaa. Their support comes from neighboring Saudi Arabia's archenemy, Iran.

    So the Saudis formed a coalition of local and foreign forces to fight the Houthis. Their aerial bombing campaign, supported by the United States, and a blockade of rebel-held areas has destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and collapsed the economy.

    The Houthis constantly interfere with international aid sent to help, trying to tax the goods and force aid organizations to give them control over distribution, leaving millions of innocents to suffer.

    Severe flooding struck Aden last month, damaging whatever was left of sewage and water systems, only helping to spread the disease. Now some frightened medical staff are refusing to come to work, according to Dr. Israq Al Subaee, a government official trying to contain the spread.

  • Israq Al Subaee (through translator):

    Medical personnel are terrified, as all medical staff in the world. Around five of them have died.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The internationally recognized government isn't able to offer much help, since they are all in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.

  • Hisham Farook:

    I am very worried, because I can be infected.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Despite these risks, Dr. Hisham Farook still comes to help his patients every day. In this hospital in Taiz, on the front lines of Yemen's war, the need has never been more desperate.

    For the people of Yemen, the fighting brought with it pestilence. Diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, dengue fever, malaria have all run wild, and now COVID-19. Add to that devastating hunger. Eighty percent of the people here rely on aid for their survival, and famine continues to stalk the most vulnerable, unable to afford to buy food, with the country's economy in tatters.

    Half of Yemen's medical facilities are shut down because of the war's chaos and destruction.

  • Hisham Farook:

    If 100 confirmed cases emerged that required health care, I'm sure that the rest of the health care system will collapse even more than it is now.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The virus is not stopping the violence. It's only getting worse. Peace deals and cease-fire agreements are failing once more, and even the United States has stood in the way of calls for laying down arms.

    Last month, the U.S. blocked a U.N. Security Council vote that called for a global cease-fire to help combat coronavirus.

    In an e-mail to the "NewsHour," the State Department wrote that their "goal was always to support the secretary-general's call for a global cease-fire. Unfortunately, the People's Republic of China was determined to use this resolution to advance false narratives about its response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan."

    The U.S. provides intelligence and logistics to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners fighting in Yemen, while American firms have profited through billions of dollars' worth of weapons sales.

  • Samah Hadid:

    Well, the U.S. government that is involved in Yemen to a certain degree needs to actually back these efforts for a cease-fire and not block them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Samah Hadid is the spokesperson for British charity Oxfam, a major provider of aid on the ground in Yemen.

  • Samah Hadid:

    The country cannot deal with ongoing fighting and a crisis, a health crisis of this magnitude. So, instead of hindering peace processes and peace talks, a government like the U.S. needs to actually back the calls for a cease-fire and back efforts for warring sides to actually come together and actually commit to containing this virus.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Right now, the opposite is happening. Fighting between coalition forces and the Houthis rages on, and now a second war within this war is emerging.

    While Saudi-led coalition airstrikes rain from above, Yemeni groups on the ground do the fighting. Those factions are a mixture of militias and government soldiers. Supposed to be fighting the Houthis, now they are also fighting one another.

    Saudi-backed government troops are clashing with separatist groups. Yemen's north and south were once two separate countries, and these fighters hope to gain independence once again.

  • Nazar Haitham:

    From our point of view, the peace will never happen unless we get to our original state, the south becomes an independent state, and also the north is an independent state.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The government of Yemen did not respond to our request for comment on the coronavirus or renewed fighting.

  • Man (through translator):

    No one cares about us, not the separatists, not the official government, and not the NGOs. Everyone just cares about their own interests.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, the Houthi government has banned all filming by foreign media. The group insists there have only been four positive coronavirus cases in the capital, and has not released any additional test results to the aid agencies.

    Yemen has dealt with disease, famine and conflict for so long, it's hard to imagine a place less prepared to handle a pandemic like this. For 30 million people who have already suffered so much, the odds on their daily struggle to survive grow ever longer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson.

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