DUBAI: The World Health Organization (WHO) has suspended staff activity at its hubs in areas of Yemen held by the Iranian-backed Houthis, a directive seen by Reuters showed, in a move sources said aimed to pressure the group to be more transparent about suspected coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases.
War-ravaged Yemen, one of the countries most vulnerable to disease, is divided between the internationally recognized government temporarily based in the south and the Houthi militia.
The government has so far reported 34 cases of COVID-19 with seven deaths in territory it controls, while the Iranian-backed militia, which holds most large urban centers, has recorded just two cases with one death.
The WHO directive issued late on Saturday notified staff in Sanaa, the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the northern province of Saada and central province of Ibb that “all movements, meetings or any other activity” for staff in those areas were paused until further notice.
The WHO has temporarily paused its movements in northern areas due to “credible threats and perceived risks which could have an impact on staff security,” it said in response to a Reuters’ query, adding that operations have not been suspended.
The UN is operating under the assumption that there is now full-blown transmission in Yemen, it said.
“We are competing for resources and supplies in the global market — and a country’s ‘priority status’ in terms of who receives what for COVID-19 is directly linked to how many cases are in country and the need — it is the numbers,” it said.
The UN has “systematically for weeks now” advised on case declaration and reporting, but the decision to do so rests with local authorities, the WHO added.
Three sources told Reuters the WHO had taken the measure to press Houthis to report results of tests for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.
The internationally recognized government has accused the Iranian-backed group of covering up an outbreak in Sanaa. The WHO says it fears COVID-19 could rip through Yemen as the population has some of the lowest levels of immunity to disease compared with other countries. Minimal testing capacity has added to concerns.