As COVID-19 spreads through Yemen, widespread fear of the coronavirus is preventing people from seeking medical care. Teams from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have started recently supporting a new COVID-19 treatment centre in Sheikh Zayed hospital in the Yemeni capital Sana’a.
Only half of the 20 beds for patients with moderate coronavirus symptoms in Sheikh Zayed hospital are currently occupied. According to our staff, many people regard hospitals as a source of infection, while some believe sinister rumours about what happens in hospitals for patients who have symptoms of COVID-19.
Others are fearful of being stigmatised by their communities if they test positive for the disease. As a result, many Yemenis are not seeking medical care until their condition is serious.
“We are seeing at first-hand the detrimental impact of misinformation that is being circulated all over the country, augmenting fear of the virus in society,” says MSF’s Dr Abdulrahman, who works in Sheikh Zayed hospital. “Hospitals are safe places for patients, and the earlier that patients come to hospital, the better the chances we have to treat their symptoms.”
Many patients arriving at the hospital’s emergency room are in a critical condition and need immediate support to breathe. All six beds are currently occupied in the intensive care unit, where patients in severe respiratory distress receive around-the-clock care, dependent on black and red oxygen cylinders that need to be changed every three hours.
“We are concerned over what we see in the hospital, but an even greater concern is the patients we don’t see – those who choose not to seek medical treatment until their condition deteriorates considerably,” says Caroline Ducarme, MSF’s Head of Mission in Yemen.
Like a number of other hospitals in the country, Sheikh Zayed hospital was designated by health authorities as a COVID-19 treatment centre and shifted from providing maternity services and trauma care, to tackling a pandemic that has challenged some of the world’s most developed health systems.
Yemen has very limited testing capabilities for COVID-19 and so the virus is spreading across the country untraced. After years of war, the health system was already under considerable stress before the pandemic. Now it appears that people have lost trust in the health system and health staff.
Recent reports that health workers are at high risk of falling ill with the virus have also raised serious concerns about their safety among medical staff across the country, leading many to quit their jobs and stay at home, leaving hospitals short-staffed.
“One of the consistent challenges we face is finding skilled medical staff willing to work in a COVID-19 treatment centre, where they are needed most,” says Ducarme. “This is despite the use of personal protective equipment and the strict implementation of infection prevention and control measures in this hospital. The departure of health workers is further weakening the Yemeni health system.”
Sheikh Zayed hospital is the second COVID-19 treatment facility in Sana’a supported by MSF, along with Al-Kuwait hospital. Some of MSF’s patients have travelled long distances to get treatment in the capital, suggesting that there are many unmet medical needs elsewhere.
“A number of our patients in Sheikh Zayed hospital come from governorates as far as Taiz and Ad Dhale, in search of essential medical care that may be inaccessible in their areas,” explains Roger Gutiérrez, MSF’s Head of Emergencies in Yemen. “The patients we see have the means to travel, but what about those who are seriously ill with no means to travel and no other medical options around?”
More resources are desperately needed in Yemen, both for COVID-19 patients and for those with other health needs. We urge the international community to mobilise resources to help Yemen cope with this crisis, and call on Yemeni authorities to facilitate the implementation of lifesaving programmes.
“A massive scale-up of the overall health response is required to urgently address the silent needs,” says Ducarme. “Instead of cutting down support at such a critical time, the international community should be mobilising maximum resources to maintain humanitarian interventions in Yemen, while local authorities must exert all efforts to facilitate the implementation of lifesaving programmes and ensure that people can safely access humanitarian aid.”