Lack of vaccines and medical resources hinders effective COVID-19 containment
In Yemen, COVID-19 has put additional pressure on a health system devastated by conflict. After more than six years of war, half of the country’s hospitals are out of service and the population has become vulnerable to endemic diseases, including cholera, polio, diphtheria and dengue fever. Aid partners estimate that 20.1 million people in Yemen need health assistance, including 11.6 million people in acute need. At least one child dies every 10 minutes because of preventable diseases.
Since it arrived in Yemen in April 2020, COVID-19 has forced health officials and aid partners to reassign scarce medical resources to save lives and contain the spread of the virus. It is estimated that some 15 per cent of the functioning health system has been repurposed for the COVID-19 response, which contributed to reducing overall health coverage by 20 to 30 per cent.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in southern governorates spiked in mid- August 2021, prompting health officials to raise the alarm about a third wave of the outbreak. Since then, weekly rates of COVID-19 deaths have increased more than five-fold. In early September, the spike in cases prompted the Government of Yemen to close all public and private schools in southern governorates. By 30 September, more than 9,000 confirmed cases were reported across southern governorates, with over 1,700 people losing their lives in the pandemic. These figures greatly underestimate community spread, given the lack of testing capacities across the country. They also exclude cases in governorates controlled by the de facto authorities (DFA) in Sana’a, where most of Yemen’s population lives.
The lack of resources has been the main impediment to the implementation of country-wide response and containment strategies. Testing capacities are almost non-existent, except for travelers. The few existing COVID-19 isolation centres are overwhelmed, while hospitals and community health centres lack medical supplies and resources to be able to respond to mounting needs effectively.
More importantly, the vaccines made available for Yemen so far fall far short of existing needs. Yemen is expected to receive 14 million doses through the COVAX facility, which aims to guarantee fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, and which is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi and WHO, with UNICEF as its key delivery partner. However, so far, only 867,800 doses have been delivered to Yemen. Of these, 716,800 are AstraZeneca doses, enough for 358,400 individuals to be fully vaccinated. An additional 151,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were delivered to Yemen on 29 August.
Available vaccines are nowhere near enough to meet needs across the country, and to date only 0.1 per cent of Yemen’s population have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Our World in Data. This mainly comprises some 305,366 people who received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in areas under the internationally recognized government (IRG), including 21,529 health care workers. Only 14,864 of them have received the second dose thus far. In DFAheld areas, 2,659 health workers have received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, including 47 who have also received the second dose. As of 22 September, some 33,239 more people, including 1,252 health workers, have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Dispensation of the remaining Johnson & Johnson vaccines is ongoing.