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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — The Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen is blocking global efforts to supply coronavirus vaccines to the war-hit country and suppressing information about cases and deaths in areas under its control, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The New York-based rights group said that since the start of the pandemic in Yemen in April 2020, Houthi officials have actively spread disinformation about the virus and vaccines.
"The deliberate decision of the Houthi authorities to keep the real number of cases of Covid-19 under wraps and their opposition to vaccines are putting Yemeni lives at risk," said HRW's deputy Middle East director Michael Page.
"Pretending Covid-19 does not exist is not a mitigation strategy and will only lead to mass suffering.”
“Given the weakened healthcare system in Yemen, Houthi authorities should at least ensure transparency so that civilians living in their areas can understand the scale of the pandemic and facilitate an international vaccination plan that meets the needs on the ground,” Page added.
Citing the statement made by United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock on April 15, the HRW said that no vaccines so far have reached areas under the Houthi control.
HRW said it interviewed four Yemeni health workers based in Sanaa, three based abroad who have close knowledge of the COVID-19 crisis in Yemen, Yemeni doctors living abroad, and one international health worker involved in coronavirus response efforts between mid-April and early May.
All asked not to have their identities revealed for fear of reprisal. HRW also reviewed and verified videos in which Houthi officials appear to spread disinformation about the virus and vaccines.
According to HRW, numerous Houthi officials have spread disinformation about COVID-19 stating that the virus is a “conspiracy.” Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, said in a televised speech in March 2020 on the Houthi-funded TV channel, Al-Masirah, that the virus was an American conspiracy.
“America bears the primary responsibility for the Covid-19 epidemic,” he said. “Some experts in biological warfare say that Americans have worked for years to benefit from the coronavirus and have worked to spread it in certain societies.”
Several Houthi officials reportedly have died with coronavirus-associated symptoms over the past few months.
The Houthi armed group also reportedly created a black market for COVID-19 testing while refusing to take precautionary measures against the virus, HRW said.
Health workers interviewed said they believed that the Houthis were refusing to acknowledge the pandemic to keep the economy fully open and to allow the political elite to siphon off exorbitant fees imposed on businesses. The Houthis have sharply increased revenues over the past two years by engaging in a number of predatory and corrupt practices, according to the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.
According to HRW, unlike the Houthi authorities, the Yemeni government-backed health authorities operating in the south and east of the country have regularly reported the number of confirmed cases and warned during 2020 about a possible second wave. The Yemeni government has reported 4,119 confirmed cases and 864 deaths, with more than half of the total cases reported during the first quarter of 2021.
On April 20, the Yemeni government began a vaccination campaign funded by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief), the charity arm of Saudi Arabia, WHO, UNICEF, and in areas controlled by the Yemeni government (covering 13 governorates), HRW said.
Despite some public distrust of the vaccine, the Yemeni government said on May 26 that it had so far vaccinated more than 53,000 citizens.
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