- Nawal Al-Mahqafi
- A private correspondent for BBC News Arabic
While Yemen holds its breath in preparation for a second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, a Yemeni doctor narrates the story of her fighting the epidemic on her own after her colleagues fled from the hospital where she was working, and the exciting false news story that undermined the help she finally received.
Doctor Zahha Al-Saadi, 29, recalls the moment she was standing behind a red line hastily painted in a hospital where she was working to isolate patients. Standing on the other side of the line was a lonely patient with difficulty breathing.
This line was not necessary for several weeks, as it was only a warning that the epidemic that was afflicting many other countries would inevitably reach Yemen. However, Al-Amal Hospital in Aden has now witnessed its first cases of Covid-19.
Doctor Zahha looked with the medical staff to the line in horror, and when she asked her colleagues what was happening, they answered her that they had given the victim oxygen gas, but they did not want them to have any further contact with him. Soon after, her colleagues fled the hospital.
“There was no response. I was screaming and calling, but no one answered,” she said.
But the hospital administration says that its employees have not left the hospital.
For the next two weeks, Zaha and one nurse were treating dozens of patients.
Zuha does not blame her colleagues, as Al Amal Hospital, which the government designated in Aden for Covid-19 patients, was not eligible for this role. The hospital lacked adequate supplies of protective gear and oxygen, and had only seven ventilators.
For the first two weeks, the doctor was unable to save the life of any patient.
The doctor was afraid of the moment when the epidemic would reach Yemen. When she was following the news with her mother the previous month while the epidemic was ravaging developed countries, her attention immediately turned to the fate that might befall her country, Yemen.
The years of war had a devastating impact on Yemen. It destroyed more than half of the health facilities, and made more than two-thirds of Yemenis dependent on aid.
However, responsible authorities and the official media have never mentioned the epidemic, which reassured Zoha to some extent.
“If they didn’t talk about it, they might be in control,” she said.
However, when I learned that the World Health Organization wanted to organize a conference devoted to training on facing the Covid-19 epidemic in Yemen, I decided to register to participate in it.
At that conference, the participants received training on how to protect themselves and treat people with Covid disease in a safe manner. But despite her feeling the training was helpful, Zaha was terrified. She was aware of the real situation of hospitals in Yemen, and of the hospital in which she works in Aden in particular.
“They were training us, but we did not have the infrastructure or the requisites to implement that,” she said.
It was not long before Covid disease appeared to spread in all regions of Aden, as most hospitals in the city closed their doors after it was found that they were unable to cope with the epidemic and after the death of more than ten doctors who were working in them as a result of their infection with it.
Line up On the doors
The parking lot of Al-Amal Hospital was crowded with ambulances and others belonging to the families of the injured, waiting for the availability of beds for their patients.
There were only nine beds in the hospital’s Covid patient hall, which was hastily prepared. Each bed had an oxygen cylinder, but when these cylinders were running out, there was no staff responsible for refilling them. There was no one left to do that except Zahha, the only nurse who was with her.
But on several occasions, and in the midst of the crisis, the two were unable to do so, which led to the death of many patients by suffocation.
Zahha recalls how a patient watched her while she was trying hard to fulfill the requirements of the hallway she was working in. His oxygen was depleted.
“He was aware that I was terrified. He grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, my dear, I know that my age has come, and this is not your fault, for I have done everything in your power,'” the doctor said. And that patient died a few hours later.
Despite the doctor’s insistence on asking the government to help her through direct contacts and via Facebook, she did not receive any response from the responsible authorities.
By May, when international news reports spread about the effects of Covid disease in Yemen, the government was forced to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and requested assistance from Doctors Without Borders, seeking its assistance in dealing with the epidemic.
Within a few days, this organization arrived in Aden and took over the supervision of Al-Amal Hospital, bringing with it the necessary staff and supplies. The organization also set up a temporary hospital in a wedding hall next to the hospital.
Doctor Zahha is no longer alone in her job.
“I was crying, because it was too much,” she said.
She said that one of the organization’s doctors noticed that she was wailing and uttering words as long as she waited for her government to utter them. He said, “Be strong, we are with you and the situation will undoubtedly improve. This is a promise.”
After it became clear that someone had begun to control the situation, the medical staff returned to work in the hospital.
“The patients used to leave the hospital in plastic bags, but now they leave with two legs. It’s like turning from hell to paradise,” said Doctor Zahi.
But this situation did not last long, as the problems began to get worse.
An audio recording via WhatsApp has become widespread in Aden.
In that recording, its publisher said, “The medical staff working at Al-Amal Hospital kill patients with Covid by using toxic injections.”
A doctor, who did not want to be named, told me, “They said that patients who are hopelessly on the brink of death have injections of their own lethality. This is insane, but many people took it seriously.”
Doctor Zahha and Médecins Sans Frontières say the number of patients attending the hospital has decreased sharply following the publication of that recording.
One of the patients, who was suffering from great difficulty breathing, told the doctor that he had to beg his brothers to take him to Al-Amal Hospital because they believed that he would be killed if he was admitted.
Clashes in the hospital
Doctors say that malicious rumors continue to spread.
In one case, a number of armed men stormed the hospital. These employees and Doctors Without Borders say that the hospital director led the break-in.
The director, Dr. Zakaria Al-Quaiti, was temporarily removed from his position when MSF took over the supervision of the hospital. But he now claims that the hospital’s equipment is stolen by MSF members.
Al-Quaiti had posted a video on Facebook, showing the equipment and supplies of Al-Amal Hospital being loaded in trucks.
Doctors Without Borders told the BBC that it was in the process of returning the supplies it borrowed from another facility in Aden.
Al-Quaiti told the BBC that he went to the hospital to check the supplies he had, but when he was prevented from doing so, armed men intervened to end a confrontation that arose between him and the hospital security men. Al-Qaiti denied that anyone was threatened or attacked in that confrontation.
These events may seem a little strange in a country in desperate need of help in the face of the pandemic. But the political vacuum caused by the ongoing conflict in Yemen has led to widespread chaos and distrust, and to competition among local politicians for power.
To make matters worse, the local Yemeni media practically plays the role of propaganda channels funded by the warring factions, so citizens rely on social media platforms to obtain news, which helps spread misleading and false rumors.
MSF withdrew from Al Amal hospital on 25 July, citing security concerns. The organization transferred its activities to another hospital in Aden, but it faced problems with the management at that hospital as well.
After six weeks, the organization withdrew its team completely from Aden.
Meanwhile, thousands of people died at home as a result of contracting COVID-19 because they were afraid to visit hospitals for treatment.
The Yemeni Minister of Health refused to participate in a press interview, but he told the BBC that his government has a strong relationship with Doctors Without Borders, and that the organization is carrying out its humanitarian mission in many Yemeni governorates.
Counting the dead
The impact of the virus is evident in the Al-Radwan Cemetery in Aden, which is the closest cemetery to Al-Amal Hospital, which is 10 kilometers away.
The grave digger Ghassan became aware of the seriousness of the situation when he began to receive more bodies than he was able to bury.
“I asked for help from friends of mine, but they also fell ill. The number of deaths was so great that we could not eat our food,” Ghassan said.
It is not easy to obtain accurate information on the number of deaths due to Covid disease in Aden. The city has seen few checks for infections, so it is difficult to make sure that those who died during the outbreak of the epidemic have died from Covid disease. But Ghassan keeps his own records.
The families of the deceased show him documents showing the cause of death. Ghassan writes the names of those he buries who died in Al-Amal Hospital with symptoms similar to those associated with Covid disease.
Ghassan told me that in May alone – the month that marked the height of the epidemic in Aden – he buried more than 1,500 bodies. According to official death statistics, the number of deaths in May was six times greater than in the same period the previous year.
It was the first time I saw this thing. It was worse than the war, ”Ghassan said.
Doctor Zahha says that the situation of Covid disease in Aden is now relatively stable.
At present, Zuha works at a different medical facility run by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and says that positive results for infection include only a small number of those who are currently being tested for the virus.
“People here think that the virus has disappeared, but scientists say that is not true,” she says.
Yemen, like many countries, is expected to suffer the brunt of a second wave of the epidemic.
“We will be unprepared as we were in the first wave,” says the Yemeni doctor. “They (the government) have not learned their lesson.”