Cairo – For three days last month, Nasser joined hundreds of others locked in emergency rooms in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in search of a hospital bed for his mother, who was struggling to breathe. By the time someone was available, his mother was dead.

But his death certainly won’t add to the country’s coronavirus numbers. Officially, Yemen’s north has only reported four virus cases and one death, according to Houthi rebel officials who control the capital and surrounding provinces.

It’s not just a struggling health care system that is responsible for an incalculable number of deaths. In interviews with the Associated Press, more than a dozen doctors, aid workers, Sanaa residents and relatives of those believed to be Houthi officials are approaching the pandemic with such an outright denial that it has already There is a danger of putting vulnerable people in further danger. population.

They say doctors are forced to falsify the cause of death on official papers, vaccines are viewed with fear, and there are no limits or guidelines on public gatherings, let alone funerals.

Nasser’s mother, like many others, was buried without any precautions against the virus and hundreds of people attended the funeral. A few days later, an aunt, 40, died, and two other relatives became ill and were hospitalized for more than a week.

“Of course, my aunt died of corona,” said Nasser, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisal by the Houthi authorities. “But no one tells us the truth.”

According to doctors and residents, the deaths are with Sanaa and other areas of northern Yemen experiencing the third deadly coronavirus surge. But beyond residents’ anecdotes, it’s hard to know how many have been sick or killed. Houthi rebels have imposed an information blackout over the number of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19. Trial remains sparse, or silent.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has already been devastated by six years of civil war. The fighting pits Iranian-backed Houthi rebels against an internationally recognized government, aided by a Saudi-led coalition.

The war killed more than 130,000 people, displaced millions and created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Aerial bombing and intense ground fighting have destroyed the country’s infrastructure, rendering half the country’s health facilities unusable. About 18% of Yemen’s 333 districts have no doctors. Water and sanitation systems have collapsed. Many families barely manage to feed for a day.

The fighting came amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which added to the war’s fatal toll.

“There was a huge wave of COVID-19 and they (Houthis) knew it very well,” a UN health official in Yemen said on condition of anonymity, speaking to the rebels over vaccination and other issues. on condition of anonymity for fear of undermining talks with. “The isolation centers were full; The number was doubled three or four times. “

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Houthis have not treated it with seriousness and action, said Afra Nasser, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. They have also hindered international efforts to help fight it in their regions, he said.

“Each party in Yemen has its own strategy, but the Houthi is a destroyer,” she said. “This is a recipe for disaster.”

Dr. Adham Ismail, the representative of the World Health Organization in Yemen, said getting any coronavirus vaccine in Houthi-controlled areas was “a great achievement”. Initially, officials banned the shots, and then agreed to only allow in 1,000 doses. He has not run any campaign encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Protests against the Houthi vaccines forced doctors and other residents to take their shots in Yemeni government-held areas. Many, including aid workers working in Houthi-held areas, registered online and traveled covertly to cities such as Aden, Lahaj and Taiz for vaccinations.

Yemen received the first 360,000-dose shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative in March. The shipment was the first batch of the 1.9 million doses that Yemen is to receive by the end of the year. a vaccination
The campaign was launched in April in government-held areas.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government has reported nearly 7,200 confirmed cases, including 1,391 deaths in areas under its control. However, the actual number is believed to be much higher mainly due to limited testing.

A spokesman for the rebels did not respond to calls seeking comment. But last year, a spokesman for the Houthi health ministry, Youssef al-Hadhari, told the AP: “We do not publish numbers to society because such propaganda takes a heavy and terrible toll on people’s psychological health.”

Meanwhile, the Houthis continue to hold public events, including recruitment gatherings and funerals attended by thousands for senior military officers killed in battle, as virus cases rise. Not everyone has taken any precautionary measures against the virus.

More than a dozen doctors, aid workers and residents said cases were rising rapidly in the north, with more frequent funerals, apparently of virus victims, though doctors said they did not need to confirm the cause of death. warn up. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the rebels.

Doctors and other health care workers said 24 isolation centers in the north have been full since mid-July. A health care worker at a Palestinian hospital said daily dozens of patients came in with coronavirus-like symptoms, most in their 30s and 40s. He said that due to the lack of other options, many people are being asked to self-isolate at home.

In Sanaa cemeteries, grave diggers have found it difficult to find places for new burial plots. At a cemetery in Jaraf, an excavator estimated that more than 30 people were buried every day over the past two months, many of whom were women and the elderly.

In the northern province of Ibb, two health care workers at Jibla Hospital said the facility receives about 50 people with Covid-19-like symptoms every day. Hospitals lack testing capacity, so doctors usually rely on other means for diagnosis.

When patients die at Jibla Hospital, doctors do not tell relatives they suspect they have been infected with the virus, for fear of being targeted later. According to health care workers, the Houthis have appointed security supervisors in hospitals to control the flow of information between medical staff and patients’ families.

Earlier this year, two senior Houthi officials died, apparently among the country’s most high-profile virus victims. Yahiya al-Shami, spent more than a month in an isolation center in Sanaa before dying of the virus in April, and Zakariya al-Shami, transport minister in the Houthi government, also caught the coronavirus and died in March, according to doctors. who treated them.

Houthi rebel officials announced both deaths – but no mention was made of the cause.