An Australian doctor describes what it’s like fighting coronavirus in Yemen

Yemen is stuck in a proxy war and home to the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things more devastating for those living there, and those trying to help.

An unidentified health worker at a COVID-19 ward in Sanaa, Yemen, last year.

An unidentified health worker at a COVID-19 ward in Sanaa, Yemen, last year. Source: Xinhua News Agency/Getty

A Sydney intensive care doctor says his most confronting moment treating COVID-19 patients in Yemen was watching a fellow doctor die a few hours after his oxygen supply was cut off.

When Dr Khairil Musa went to Yemen with humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières in May last year, he found the response to the pandemic in Yemen was very different from Australia.

“There wasn’t any social distancing, isolation, contact tracing; all these things just didn’t exist there,” he told SBS News.

Equipment that Dr Musa took for granted in Sydney was in short supply in Yemen. It was hard to get personal protective equipment, drugs, ventilators and oxygen. The oxygen the hospital did have wasn’t reliable.

Medics attend to a patient at a hospital in Sanaa in January.
Source: Getty Images

Dr Musa tells the story about how one day a local doctor, an orthopaedic surgeon in his 40s, came into the hospital struggling to breathe. The Yemeni doctor was treated with oxygen and placed on a ventilator.

“One day the oxygen supply tank exploded so essentially cutting off the oxygen supply to this patient, and despite our best efforts even after the oxygen supply was fixed, he died a few hours later.”

It was a confronting and difficult situation for Dr Musa.

“I was told that he mentored a lot of junior doctors and was really well-loved.”

Skills shortage

Yemen is in desperate need of skilled surgeons to treat war wounds. The country has been stuck in a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for six years and COVID-19 is the latest layer of suffering for people facing the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Data collected by the World Health Organisation shows health workers account for almost five per cent of COVID-19 cases in Yemen.

The same data shows 29 per cent of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Yemen have died. The high ratio is likely to be because not every case of infection has been recorded in the country of 29 million people. The data is based on 2,127 cases confirmed and 616 deaths.

Sydney doctor Khairil Musa was shocked by what he saw in Yemen.
Source: Felicity Ogilvie/SBS News

But in a war-torn country enduring famine, and where aid is used as a weapon, rolling out a large-scale testing program is near impossible.

The director of the Centre for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University Professor Paul Spiegel has no doubts the number of infections in Yemen is much worse than what is being reported.

“Most of the COVID-19 data is coming from the south of the country but the Houthi-controlled areas up in the north they’re not even recording COVID-19 data, so at this moment it’s like we are flying blind,” he said.

The professor, who trained as a physician and has studied the cholera outbreak in Yemen, said if there isn’t widespread vaccination in countries like Yemen, more variants will emerge.

“You can vaccinate 100 per cent of people in Australia but a variant may come up if you don’t take care of these other countries. Then the vaccine may not be applicable to that and therefore you’re back to square one.”

A private hospital in the city of Aden.
Source: AFP/Getty Images

Yemen is one of the low-income countries that will get free vaccines under the global COVAX agreement where rich countries are funding a global rollout of the vaccine with the intention of inoculating 20 per cent of the population in poorer countries.

COVAX has promised 2.3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Yemen this year.

“It’s in both our moral and our self-interest to make sure these vaccines get to all places in the world and not just the wealthier places,” Professor Spiegel said.

Shame and stigma

While Dr Musa is now back home in Sydney, Dr Abood Alsalahi is continuing the fight in Yemen.

Speaking from his home in Aden, he said there is a stigma in the country about having COVID-19.

The doctor is working in an isolation centre said some patients refuse to believe they have a positive swab. He said they say, “No, I’m not having COVID-19; it’s another disease,” because of the stigma.

He says he has discharged patients and told them to isolate at home, something they have told him they can’t do because there are only two rooms in their house; one for cooking and the other where the entire family sleeps.

Some patients also can’t afford the medication he prescribes.

Dr Abood wishes to see a widespread education campaign that he said could be run on radio TV and social media teaching people about “cleaning their hands, wearing masks, keeping distance … and going to hospital”.

“Health is the most important thing in our life, and we should take care of it,” he said.

Dr Musa says he is going to continue to work for Médecins Sans Frontières.

“People need to know about the situation in Yemen. Even before COVID-19 came they were already facing so many difficulties and it feels like the world has forgotten Yemen.”

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Published 2 March 2021 at 8:24pm
By Felicity Ogilvie