Yemen cemetery struggles to dig enough graves as coronavirus spreads

  • World
  • Thursday, 09 Jul 2020

People dig graves at a cemetery where victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are buried in Taiz, Yemen June 23, 2020. Picture taken June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

TAIZ/ADEN (Reuters) - In Yemen's Taiz, cemetery supervisor Dabwan al-Makhlaafi had to hire mechanical diggers to keep up with demand for new graves at a cemetery originally built for fallen government fighters, as coronavirus spreads through the war-torn country.

"Workers were not able to keep up with the digging, burial and finishing of the graves," said Makhlaafi, a former member of parliament.

The burials at Taiz illustrate the heavy toll that the pandemic has wrought on Yemen, which lacks adequate testing capabilities and health infrastructure.

The Saudi-backed government based in the south has reported 1,303 cases, including 348 deaths. The Houthi movement, which controls most large urban centres after ousting the government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, has not provided figures since May 16 when it said there were four cases and one death.

The United Nations has said the virus is circulating undetected and infections are likely much higher. A government health ministry spokesman said it reported figures daily and "nothing was hidden". A Houthi spokesman did not respond to calls.

In the plot overlooking the green hills of southwest Yemen, Shaman Radman Ali helps carry his father in a white plastic body bag.

He died at the city's only coronavirus hospital with suspected COVID-19 infection, but no test was conducted to confirm it. The family went into debt to scrape together almost $600 for tests and drugs at the hospital, and another $50 for the grave.

Their story is a familiar one across Yemen, including in the southern port of Aden where many hospitals, unprepared to deal with coronavirus patients, turned away people at the beginning of the outbreak.

The family of 60-year-old Abdallah al-Sharaabi were fearful when his fever spiked but could not afford the $50 a day at a private hospital.

When his condition worsened, a nearby government hospital refused to admit him and told them to go the dedicated COVID-19 centre 20km outside Aden run by medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF).

"I had to carry him home alone because nobody would help me for fear of infection," his wife Umm Muhammad said.

The family hesitated about taking him to the coronavirus hospital which had seen so many fatalities, and Sharaabi died in the two-room house he shares with his wife and nine children.

His 16-year-old son Mohammed quit school to take on his father's job making deliveries on a small truck.

"Our situation is difficult. Some charitable societies are helping people in our neighbourhood but it is not enough. I need to work now," he said.

Since al-Sharaabi died in May, two more coronavirus centres opened in Aden and the MSF hospital said its patient numbers are starting to fall.

But they worry about the situation in harder to reach areas.

Bad roads, frontlines and fighting makes it hard for many to reach help and to get a clear picture of the outbreak, MSF representative Julienne Vergez said.

(Reporting by Reuters Yemen team; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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