North Africa, West Asia: Feature

In search of a COVID-19 vaccine in Yemen

Conspiracy theories, misinformation and Houthi refusals to vaccinate people in areas under their control mean that Yemenis are struggling to get a dose

Najm aldain Qasem
Najm aldain Qasem
7 October 2021, 7.20am
When the first batch of vaccines arrived at Aden airport, Yemen was suffering from the deterioration of its health sector and medical services
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Photo by author

On 31 March, COVAX provided the Ministry of Health of the internationally recognised Yemen government, led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, with the first batch of 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The shipment was meant for all Yemeni provinces, including those controlled by the Houthis.

When the first batch arrived at Aden airport, the whole country was suffering from the deterioration of its health sector and medical services. Areas controlled by the Hadi government were witnessing a second wave of the pandemic, while the Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and Yemen’s northern provinces, were withholding information about the number of coronavirus infections in their areas.

Medical staff working at health facilities in Houthi controlled areas were still optimistic about being allocated a share of the vaccines, however.

“The first batch of vaccines could be lifesaving for Yemenis,” said Abdallah Ali, an ER doctor at Kuwait Hospital in Sanaa. “Prioritising the medical staff would be a positive step to protect healthcare workers who deal with infected people on a daily basis. We have lost many colleagues due to the pandemic; we don’t want to lose any more.”

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Ali hoped that the warring parties would take the vaccination of citizens and healthcare staff seriously, and that the issue would not be politicised. But this proved not to be the case in areas controlled by the Houthis.

Last March, the Houthi Ministry of Health in Sanaa requested 10,000 doses from the World Health Organization (WHO), to immunise healthcare workers. However, in mid-April, according to the WHO office in Yemen, the group reduced the order to 1,000 shots, “provided they will be supplied with larger quantities of future batches”.

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Taiz, Marib, Aden, Shabwa and Hadramawt are some of the other destinations people living under Houthi control travel to in order to get vaccinated | Photo by author

But when a shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrived in Yemen on 29 August, the Houthis refused to take any of the doses donated by the US. Instead, they only accepted the 1,000 doses from the WHO, which a well-informed source at the Ministry of Health claimed was to vaccinate the group’s leaders.

In areas controlled by the Hadi government, the Ministry of Health was busy denying rumours about the vaccine’s side effects, which were making many Yemenis reluctant to take the vaccine. Then, on 20 May, Saudi Arabia announced that it would deny entry to any Yemeni worker without a vaccination card. This caused a rush on vaccination centers and pressure on the Ministry of Health to provide the necessary doses to enable the large number of Yemenis who work abroad to resume their lives.

Mohamad Al Akel is one of 1.8 million Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia. To be able to return to his job before his residency permit expired, he needed to get vaccinated. But with vaccination unavailable in areas controlled by the Houthis, he had to go to the city of Taiz, which is under the control of the Hadi government. In June, he took the 17-hour trip along with eight other people in a 4x4.

In addition to Taiz, Marib, Aden, Shabwa and Hadramawt are some of the other destinations people living under Houthi control travel to in order to get vaccinated. The Hadi government’s Ministry of Health and the WHO have set up vaccination centers in all these provinces and allocated a number of them to travellers.

Houthi conspiracy theories

Dr Ishrak Sibai, an official at the Hadi Ministry of Health, said that the Houthis do not believe the pandemic is real, which is why there are no vaccinations in Sanaa or other provinces under their control. The Ministry of Health is willing to provide vaccinations to all the Yemeni provinces, she explained, but the Houthis refuse to cooperate since they consider the pandemic to be an international conspiracy.

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Hundreds of people were sleeping under the burning sun in the hospital’s backyard, waiting their turn to be vaccinated | Photo by author

In a TV speech on 21 March, Abdul Malik Al Houthi, the group’s leader, described the pandemic as a “biological war”, produced by developed countries in high tech labs, using “viruses and germs”. He alleged that countries like the US use these viruses for their benefit to kill people and harm countries and societies.

This was a few days after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Many Houthi followers and social media users promoted rumours and misleading information regarding the pandemic, while the group’s Ministry of Health has not released statistics on infections or deaths since announcing four deaths on 5 May last year.

Muhammad Al Bakhiti, from the Houthi Supreme Political Council, attempted to justify his group’s policy: “By not disclosing the number of infections, we made sure people did not panic, and the death rate was reduced. The death rate in the internationally recognised government areas was this high because of the daily statistics and numbers, which led to panic and fear.”

Dr Ali Al Mufti, general manager of services and emergency in the Houthi Ministry of Health, refused to comment on his ministry’s refusal to accept the vaccines from the WHO.

Chaos at the vaccination center

After a long journey, Mohamad Al Akel arrived at Al-Muzaffar Hospital in Taiz. Hundreds of people were sleeping under the burning sun in the hospital’s backyard, waiting their turn to be vaccinated and to register their data to receive their vaccination certificate.

At the same time, the city’s hospitals and quarantine centers were receiving dozens of suspected COVID-19 cases.

“One week after the vaccination centers opened in June, dozens of infections and suspected cases were arriving here daily,” said Walid Al-Amri, director of the Isolation Centre at Al-Jomhouri Hospital in Taiz. “This was because of overcrowding in front of the vaccination centres, and lack of social distancing.”

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For four days in June, Al Akel waited in long queues in front of the vaccination centre | Photo by author

According to Al-Amri, the vaccination process was random and disorganised, which led to the overcrowding, with people fearing that doses would run out. In response, in mid-July the Ministry of Health started a pre-registration system, with people attending by appointment only.

Taking advantage of the crisis

For four days in June, Al Akel waited in long queues in front of the vaccination centre, which was only open from 8am until 1pm. On the fourth day, as his turn was about to come, a broker approached him, offering to sell him a forged vaccination card for 800 Saudi riyals. The broker claimed the vaccine was unsafe and had dangerous side effects. Al Akel would have accepted the offer, had his turn not come at that moment.

Brokers were operating in Marib and Aden, as well as Taiz, forging and selling vaccination cards, taking advantage of people’s need for these certificates to travel. In response, the Ministry of Health launched a platform to issue electronic certificates, and no longer issues vaccination cards. The ministry posted a statement on its official Facebook page warning people against buying forged certificates or dealing with brokers.

But this did not stop the problem. Programmers hacked the certificates platform and were able to enter the data of unvaccinated people and issue electronic certificates, charging amounts up to 1,500 Saudi riyals. According to the ministry, its technical teams, along with the WHO, are working on fixing and securing the platform.

On 22 September, the second shipment of vaccines arrived in the country, and Al Akel received his second dose a week later. But with Yemen still in a state of war, and with the humanitarian crisis affecting the lives of millions, the country is still far from having enough vaccines to protect everyone.

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