Transcript

Yemen’s COVID Cover-Up

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NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI, Correspondent:

This is Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. It’s April 2020 and COVID is raging around the world, but here the city markets are still full of people.

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] We’re believers. We’re Muslims. We hope this illness won’t affect us.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

When this was filmed, other countries were already under lockdown.

CAMERAMAN:

[Speaking Arabic] Are you afraid of corona?

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] Not at all.

MALE SPEAKER 2:

[Speaking Arabic] No. We only fear God.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

They’re selling qat, a stimulant. Chewing the leaves is a national addiction.

MALE SPEAKER 3:

[Speaking Arabic] There’s no corona, thank God.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

The city seems to be in denial.

CAMERAMAN:

[Speaking Arabic] Have you heard of the corona disease?

MALE SPEAKER 4:

[Speaking Arabic] We’ve heard about it but we don’t have it here.

CAMERAMAN:

[Speaking Arabic] It’s an illness, you can’t see it.

MALE SPEAKER 4:

[Speaking Arabic] We won’t get it here.

CAMERAMAN:

[Speaking Arabic] The crowds and these markets make it spread quicker.

MALE SPEAKER 4:

[Speaking Arabic] Don’t worry, my friend. As long as we remain calm, it won’t come to us.

MALE SPEAKER 5:

[Speaking Arabic] If I had a daily income and could feed myself, I’d sit at home. Right now, we can barely earn our daily bread.

July 2020

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Three months later, I’m heading to Sanaa. I’m originally from Yemen, and for the past six years I’ve been covering the devastating war here. This time I’ve come to see how the virus is impacting the dire situation, especially here in the north, which is controlled by the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran.

CROWD:

[Speaking Arabic] Death to America! Death to Israel!

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

There have been widespread reports of thousands of COVID deaths in areas where the internationally recognized government is in control, but here in the north the Houthis insist there have only been four cases. Even before I arrive, doctors have been telling me the death toll is much higher.

MALE DOCTOR:

[Speaking Arabic] It’s almost catastrophic. Hospitals are full. Many have died. Many health workers and doctors have lost their lives.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

I’m the first journalist from an international broadcaster to be allowed into the country since the pandemic began. When I get to Sanaa, the Houthis require me to attend a press conference on the COVID situation.

The health minister, Dr. Taha al-Mutawakkil, spends most of the briefing criticizing the Houthis’ enemies: the Saudi-led coalition that supports the internationally recognized government and has blockaded Houthi territory for years.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the damage the blockade is causing to our health sector. It’s stopping essential medical equipment from entering the country.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

He says very little about the pandemic or what the Houthis are doing to fight it.

[Speaking Arabic] What are the updates about coronavirus? What are the numbers? How many deaths? How many infected? How many recovered?

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] In terms of the coronavirus, we’ve said time and again, thanks to the Lord’s mercy, a lot of the Yemeni people have been spared. We’ve also said we have a different strategy with this virus. It’s different from other countries. They’ve made people scared. They’ve damaged their morale and immunity. Thank you all for coming.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

I try to press the minister as he leaves.

[Speaking Arabic] Has anybody died?

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] Of course we’ve had deaths.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] But what are the numbers?

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] Are numbers necessary? We have a clear strategy. Thank you.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

After the press conference, the Houthis assign me a minder to accompany me wherever I go. I head for one of Sanaa’s main markets, Bab al-Salam. I’d heard that one of the first COVID cases in Yemen was a shopkeeper here. There are signs telling people to wash their hands, but no one is wearing a mask.

As we walk, we’re approached by the man on the left. We soon realize he’s an informant for the Houthi authorities. He tells us not to film anything about coronavirus.

A shopkeeper tells me I don’t need a mask because COVID’s over. We’re about to interview him when the man interrupts and tells him what to say.

MALE HOUTHI MINDER:

[Speaking Arabic] There’s no corona.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Getting to the truth isn’t going to be easy.

[Speaking Arabic] Why are you stopping me from filming? Seriously, I can’t work like this.

[Speaking English] The Houthis use their network of local informants to exert control over the population. But some people are willing to speak out.

I shake off my minder and go to meet Dr. Ehab Alsaqqaf. I’m hoping he can help me piece together what’s really going on. He says the first wave of coronavirus cases has passed but that its effects were severe.

EHAB ALSAQQAF:

[Speaking Arabic] From the beginning, they couldn’t control it. It spread rapidly between people who were mixing with each other.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Dr. Ehab is an epidemiologist. Early on, the Houthi authorities appointed him to a team to test and trace COVID cases.

EHAB ALSAQQAF:

[Speaking Arabic] Around April 26 there were two suspected cases in Sanaa. Six of those who had been in contact with them tested positive.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

He says his team was reporting COVID numbers to the Ministry of Health but that publicly the ministry continued to deny that the virus had even entered northern Yemen.

EHAB ALSAQQAF:

[Speaking Arabic] There was no announcement about the number of cases and deaths. They didn’t publish any numbers at all. We needed to tell people the virus was spreading. There were positive cases and people were dying.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Dr. Ehab was one of the few people who knew the true scale of the COVID crisis, so when his own grandmother needed hospital care, he took extreme measures. He set up an intensive care ward for her at home.

EHAB ALSAQQAF:

[Speaking Arabic] I was afraid to send her to the hospital in case she got infected. If she caught COVID-19 her chances would be very low. I had no choice but to treat her here. I give her everything she needs.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

The Houthi authorities put out very little public information about the spread of COVID. But they’ve promoted propaganda videos like this one from May showing them mobilizing against the virus.

EHAB ALSAQQAF:

[Speaking Arabic] They closed off some areas and disinfected the markets and streets. No one was sure if there were any cases.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

By May 5, the Houthis had admitted to a single COVID fatality. But social media would soon tell a different story.

MALE VOICE [on video]:

[Speaking Arabic] They just took out a dead person, a corona patient.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Just 23 days later, this video, filmed outside Kuwait Hospital, showed how fast the disease was spreading.

MALE VOICE [on video]:

[Speaking Arabic] How many cases, Doctor?

MALE SPEAKER [on video]:

[Speaking Arabic] Four hundred to 500.

MALE VOICE [on video]:

[Speaking Arabic] Seriously?

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

As soon as COVID hit, the Houthis banned journalists from hospitals. But after two weeks of negotiating, they finally allow me into one. They insist that six minders accompany me.

The COVID ward in Kuwait Hospital is supported by an international NGO, Doctors Without Borders. It’s staffed with locals like Dr. Rania Jashan. Though the hospital is well-equipped compared to others here, she tells me it was quickly overwhelmed.

RANIA JASHAN:

[Speaking Arabic] Many people arrived with a patient in the car who was already dead. Or we moved them to the ER and they’d die. Many died because they came too late.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Dr. Rania said she wasn’t allowed to tell me the exact number of deaths. But she said that many of those who died were young, a group considered low-risk in other countries.

RANIA JASHAN:

[Speaking Arabic] We started to get really young patients, 25, 30, 35, 40 years old with no underlying health issues. They arrived unable to breathe and quickly got worse. They hardly lasted a week or two. I’d put them on a ventilator and oxygen, but it was too late.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] How did you feel?

RANIA JASHAN:

[Speaking Arabic] It was so hard. The patient would say, “I’m depending on you.” They would put all their hopes on me. Especially the young patients, it was too hard.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Despite what was going on inside their own hospitals, the Houthi authorities continued to deny they had a COVID crisis. At the same time, they were rounding up people suspected of being infected. Videos posted to Facebook in May show armed men taking sick people away by force.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] Where are you taking her?

ARMED MAN:

[Speaking Arabic] To Kuwait Hospital right away.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Here, a mother is separated from her daughter.

FEMALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] There’s nothing wrong with her. Bring her back! Bring my mom back!

EHAB ALSAQQAF:

[Speaking Arabic] People felt stigmatized. The sick were treated as criminals. In certain cases, there were even shots fired.

ARMED MAN:

[Speaking Arabic] Go home! Go home!

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] In those buses there are two cases.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Doctors told me they’d heard about many people who died at home without medical attention. We found more cellphone footage that shows Houthi teams from the Ministry of Health collecting bodies dumped on the street. We also found Facebook posts memorializing relatives and friends who died from the virus—evidence of a far higher death toll than the authorities were admitting. In one week in June, we tracked hundreds of them. Like this one, from the Jaralla family, who lost three brothers.

After all I’ve seen and heard, I want to question the Houthi health minister who dodged me at the press conference. He finally agrees to meet me in the port city of Hodeidah. The Saudis have bombed this road many times. It’s a dangerous six-hour drive.

All these lorries are carrying food and aid supplies to be distributed across the north, and they can spend days queuing for petrol, and because of the blockade, not much of it is coming in.

The Saudi coalition has imposed a blockade on Hodeidah’s port for the last five years to stop the Houthis bringing in arms. As a consequence, supplies of medicine, food and fuel are largely cut off. It can take months for aid to reach people.

I’m meeting the minister in Hodeidah Central Hospital. He wants to show me how the blockade affects people here.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] Hey, they’re filming. [laughter]

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

The emergency ward is overwhelmed with children, most of them suffering from malnutrition.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] How much does he weigh?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] He has severe, acute malnutrition.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] What is the Saudi-led coalition doing? Not allowing aid in. Malnutrition kills more Yemenis than corona. So why are you focusing on corona? People are more afraid of malnutrition, diphtheria, dengue fever. It’s one thing after another.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] Have you heard of the coronavirus?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] So many people in our village died of corona.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] Ask them. It’s fine.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] One had diabetes and high blood pressure.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] They had diabetes and died of corona?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] Yes.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] What are you worried about in your area?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] We are terrified of corona. We fear for our families and our children.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

The woman was echoing what I’d been hearing throughout my time in Yemen: that COVID has been a disaster here. I pressed the health minister on the scale of the problem.

[Speaking Arabic] There are hundreds, maybe thousands who caught this virus at home and died without anyone knowing. Who is responsible?

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] No, there aren’t thousands of cases, as you claim. The hospitals were open, the medical staff were available and the public were informed.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] Who decided to keep the number of cases a secret?

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] It hasn’t been kept a secret. We just dealt with the virus like any other virus.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] But if you refuse to tell me the numbers, that’s keeping it a secret.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] We have no problem showing the statistics. We just don’t want to spread panic among the Yemeni people. And I assure you we have fewer cases than anywhere in the region.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Just before COVID hit, the Houthis did something that would worsen the impact of the outbreak: they threatened to tax foreign aid. The U.S. responded by suspending $73 million from programs it supports in the country. Other countries and aid groups also cut funding around this time.

I want to see the effects of these cuts. Just north of Sanaa, I’m allowed into the main hospital in the city of Amran.

TARIQ QASSEM:

[Speaking Arabic] Lack of oxygen caused most of the deaths. If we’d had more oxygen, there’d have been fewer deaths. At first, we didn’t have any protective gear. We’d put on a face mask and just go in.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Twenty-six-year-old Tariq Qassem tells me at the beginning of the outbreak he was often the only doctor working in the hospital's COVID isolation ward. Without proper protective gear, he caught the coronavirus.

TARIQ QASSEM:

[Speaking Arabic] My situation got worse. I got very tired but kept working. I didn’t want any of my colleagues to take my place. I just couldn’t let them. Thank God, I got better.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Government doctors like Tariq haven’t been paid regular salaries since 2016. Instead, they’ve had to rely on support from the World Health Organization. Dr. Tariq says he was getting up to $200 a month, until March.

[Speaking Arabic] Then what happened?

TARIQ QASSEM:

[Speaking Arabic] Salaries were cut off. We weren’t given anything.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] Why?

TARIQ QASSEM:

[Speaking Arabic] The donor countries stopped paying.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

The WHO stopped paying doctors just as COVID hit Yemen. The head of the WHO in Yemen told us they had no choice due to their funding being slashed and that their contribution was intended only to supplement the doctors’ salaries, not replace them.

TARIQ QASSEM:

[Speaking Arabic] I used to send my family money for food. Now I can’t send them anything.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

With no pay and no protective gear, some doctors stopped coming to work. But others continued. Dr. Tariq takes me to meet his colleagues.

MALE DOCTOR:

[Speaking Arabic] It was risky at first. We were facing death and heading toward it. We didn’t get food or even basic payments.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] For how long haven’t you been paid?

MALE DOCTOR:

[Speaking Arabic] Nine months.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] Nine months?

MALE DOCTOR:

[Speaking Arabic] We’re getting more and more into debt. All of us, up to here.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Dr. Tariq tells me that because he’s not being paid, he can’t go home—his family can’t afford to support him. He’s been living in this hospital room since March.

TARIQ QASSEM:

[Speaking Arabic] We swore a medical oath. If we could help anyone in need, we’d do so. Yes, I’m struggling financially, but it won’t stop me working. It doesn’t matter that I’m exhausted. What’s important are the people of my country.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] Why don’t you pay the doctors’ salaries? As the Houthi government in the North, why don’t you pay the wages?

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] Give us the resources, and we will pay the wages.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] But you are paying fighters on the front lines.

TAHA AL-MUTAWAKKIL:

[Speaking Arabic] Are these questions logical? The Saudi-led coalition controls our land borders, ports and airports. We are under siege. We don’t have any resources.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

I head to a region that’s been hard hit by the ongoing war between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition. It’s called Aslam, and it’s 180 miles from Sanaa.

Saudi airstrikes have increased throughout the pandemic.

August 2020

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

In 2020, it’s estimated that there were almost twice the amount as the year before. Many involved U.S.-made bombs.

There’s just been one in a neighboring province. A coalition air strike hit a convoy of cars on the road, wounding 15 people and killing eight children.

Between the war and COVID, community health services here are in a desperate situation.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] We sometimes get about 25 children at once. They just have to sleep on the floor.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Nurse Makiyah al-Aslami runs the only health center in the area. It deals with malnutrition and maternity care. The aid cuts mean she now has more patients, but less money.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] I had a project which ran for six months and now it has stopped. Why? They say the donors had to reduce their aid because of COVID.

The Yemeni people have no way out. Now there’s corona. Before that, diarrhea. Before that, swine flu. All this in the shadow of malnutrition with children who have zero immunity. Zero.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

The fighting has displaced three and a half million people across Yemen. They’re forced to live in makeshift camps like this one. I accompany Nurse Makiyah as she does her rounds looking for COVID cases.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] We’ve been told someone here has symptoms.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

We find Ali, a father of 17 children. He lost his home in an airstrike a year ago.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] Seventeen at home? Do you all live together?

ALI:

[Speaking Arabic] Yes, together.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Nurse Makiyah wants Ali to be quarantined in the local isolation center, but he doesn't want to leave his children.

ALI:

[Speaking Arabic] It can’t happen. I’m the only one who provides for them.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

[Speaking Arabic] And if you go to the isolation center, who will feed them?

ALI:

[Speaking Arabic] No one. They’ll have nothing.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

They’ve lost their homes in the war, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The one thing that that man was terrified of was that he’d be taken to quarantine and he doesn’t know who’s going to feed his children.

At Nurse Makiyah’s clinic, there’s a patient who keeps coming back.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] When he came to us he was almost dead. He barely had a pulse.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Hassan is 8 years old. He’s one of an estimated 2 million children who are suffering from starvation.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] Hassan understands things. At his age he should be at school. He’s in this state because of the war.

HASSAN:

[Using sign language] My chest hurts. My stomach, then my chest.

NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI:

Severe malnutrition as a baby has affected Hassan’s development. He can’t hear properly; he communicates with his father in sign language.

HASSAN:

[Using sign language] There isn’t any food at home. My brothers at home have nothing.

HASSAN’S FATHER:

[Using sign language] We will go back to them soon.

MAKIYAH AL-ASLAMI:

[Speaking Arabic] When he goes home after his treatment, what’s he going to find? Nothing. There’s nothing at home. No clean water, no safe place to live, no nutritious food. One hundred percent, he’ll be back here within a week. And he’s going to spend his time like this, coming and going.

Stop the war and we’ll have food, resources, everything. This is the result of the war. It’s not just Hassan, I’ve seen thousands like him.

A virus comes from God or from nature and the whole world is in an uproar as if the world is going to end. All these countries, desperate to find a vaccine. Can’t they find a vaccine that will end this war of ours? [laughs]

55m
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