First journalist to access Yemen after Covid discovers major cover up in country of her birth


Gravediggers in Alradhwan Cemetery in Aden told the BBC they did not have time to eat during the Coronavirus outbreak they had so many bodies to bury - BBC News Arabic/BBC
Gravediggers in Alradhwan Cemetery in Aden told the BBC they did not have time to eat during the Coronavirus outbreak they had so many bodies to bury – BBC News Arabic/BBC

Like many others in March I was spending my days locked down in my London flat, listening to reports about how overwhelmed the NHS was and the struggle to get essential supplies.

However where I differed is that all I could think about was Yemen.

I am British, but I’m originally Yemeni, and regularly report from it for BBC News and the World Service.

If the UK was struggling to cope, I thought to myself, just how would the authorities in Yemen fare?

I was terrified for them: my family, my friends, the nation. But I mainly feared for my grandmother. She is in her late 70’s and ticked all the vulnerable categories.

I began calling my sister who lives in northern Yemen every day asking her if there were any cases. But while I was terrified, she, like so many others in the war-torn country was oblivious to the threat.

The Houthi authorities in the north hadn’t announced a single case.

From London I set about trying to find out what was truly happening, but it was near impossible. The Houthis had imposed a blanket restriction on all Covid reporting from areas they control.

Nawal Al-Maghafi in Yemen for BBC News Arabic - BBC News Arabic/BBC
Nawal Al-Maghafi in Yemen for BBC News Arabic – BBC News Arabic/BBC

Instead they were broadcasting propaganda videos about how they were disinfecting neighbourhoods to keep the virus at bay.

Undeterred, I spoke to Yemen’s UN humanitarian coordinator, and learnt that the entire country only had 200 ventilators. I was told that with world powers buying up all the supply, Yemen was at the bottom of the queue.

I immediately called my grandmother.

Over the phone from London I implored her to believe she was in danger, begged that she stop seeing anyone, cook for herself, and stay in her flat, alone.

The hardest part for her was sending my cousins back when they came to visit her. “We will meet after corona”, she would tell them.

By then I had collated hundreds of posts from Facebook showing how Covid was exacting its deadly toll. My father was mourning dozens of his friends who had died, and I was receiving news that members of my extended family had fallen ill with “flu like symptoms” and passed away.

I was desperate to get to Yemen to document what was happening. But with the world at a standstill it took weeks to find a way. Finally, in July, I was on one of the first flights in since Covid had hit.

I arrived in Sanaa, my home town; and a city in mourning.

A funeral procession through the northern city of Sanaa - BBC News Arabic/BBC
A funeral procession through the northern city of Sanaa – BBC News Arabic/BBC

It took me two weeks to negotiate gaining access to hospitals, such was the resistance to coverage. But finally, with 6 Houthi minders in tow, I did it.

In the first one I went to, the doctor there wasn’t even allowed to tell me the exact number of deaths, but she said the hospital was overwhelmed. In most countries young people are considered to be at low risk – but not in Yemen.

“We started to get really young patients, 25, 30, 35, 40 years old”, she told me. “They had no underlying health issues. They would deteriorate quickly, they wouldn’t last 1 to 2 weeks.”

Throughout my 2,000km trip, I worried desperately about the people I left behind me at each juncture – it wasn’t just the virus that endangered them.

Airstrikes and fighting continued throughout the pandemic. During my trip I visited the site of an attack which had hit a civilian home killing nine children.

Back in another Yemeni hospital, I also observed the impact of the US withdrawal of 73 million dollars worth of aid.

I met a doctor, Tariq Qassem, facing the task of treating Covid amidst these cuts.

He was just 26 years old, and told me the majority of the deaths were a result of the hospital lacking oxygen supplies.

Nawal at Alkuwait hospital in Sanaa - BBC News Arabic/BBC
Nawal at Alkuwait hospital in Sanaa – BBC News Arabic/BBC

“When the oxygen runs out, that’s it, we watch them die”, he said. 

Despite knowing that Yemen was ill prepared for Covid, I was still stunned to hear that he and his colleagues were working in the ICU with no protective gear.

He caught Covid, but he kept working – until he needed to be put on oxygen himself.

Tariq survived. But seeing all of this, I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandmother, hoping she was doing as I’d told her to over the phone from London.

At the end of my trip I decided I would visit her – from a safe distance. We sat metres apart in her garden. I complained to her about all the gatherings I’d seen still taking place – the weddings, the funerals.

But her response? “The people in this country have died many times: war, starvation, disease,” she said.

“Corona is the least of their worries”.



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