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Thousands of Yemenis Flee COVID-19 Hotspots

Medical workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, June 14, 2020.
Medical workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, June 14, 2020.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 10,000 people in conflict-ridden Yemen have fled their homes since April in fear of contracting COVID-19.

Nearly six years of conflict has displaced more than three million Yemenis within their country. Recently, COVID-19 has emerged as a new cause of internal displacement.

The U.N. migration agency reports the newly displaced cite fear of contracting the deadly disease, the pandemic’s impact on the economy and interruptions of basic services as their reasons for leaving.

IOM spokesman Paul Dillion says their flight has only added to their misery. He says the impact on the most vulnerable displaced is particularly acute.

“A woman named Salam in Aden told our staff about people are selling their mattresses and blankets and children’s clothing in order to meet their basic needs," Dillion said. "Displaced women who used to work as maids are forced to beg in the streets because potential employers are afraid, they are carrying the virus.”

Official World Health Organization figures put the number of infections in Yemen at 1,610, including 445 deaths. However, aid agencies believe the actual numbers are much higher.

An examination of some of the country’s virus hotspots bears this out. For example, IOM reports a particularly dire situation in Aden where hospitals are turning away suspected cases because of overcrowding and lack of equipment. It says news outlets are reporting large numbers of graves are being dug.

Spokesman Dillon tells VOA that misinformation about COVID-19 is a key driver of the new cause of displacement in Yemen.

“The false information that has been circulated in different areas about the virus," Dillion said. "And, the emerging and very clear examples of xenophobia and xenophobic attacks being directed at displaced people, migrants and otherwise in Yemen and other contexts as a result of these false narratives.”

The charity Doctors Without Borders reports people are fearful of being stigmatized by their communities if they test positive for the coronavirus. The agency expresses concern that many Yemenis are not seeking medical care until their condition is too serious to treat because they believe hospitals are the source of infections.

The United Nations says COVID-19 humanitarian operations in Yemen are in deep trouble because of a massive funding shortage. To date, it has received just 14 percent of the $385 million it needs until the end of the year.

It warns aid agencies will not be able to provide the health care, clean water and sanitation, shelter and other life-saving measures needed to help people survive the pandemic.