Houthis deliberately suppressing COVID-19 figures

Houthis deliberately suppressing COVID-19 figures

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Houthi Health Minister Taha Al-Mutwakel addresses a news conference on the coronavirus in Sanaa, Yemen, May 5, 2020. (Reuters)

A series of statements from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels last week revealed that the lack of reported coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the areas of Yemen under their control is a deliberate policy they have been implementing since the beginning of the crisis, allegedly to reassure citizens and prevent panic. The Houthis’ secrecy reflects a typical mindset of their leadership, which has thrived by obfuscating the truth to maintain an image of power and control.

The official statistics concerning COVID-19 in Yemen fail to reflect the magnitude of the crisis that is taking hold of the country. In Houthi-controlled areas, the numbers have been suppressed by directives straight from the leadership, as revealed in a Houthi press conference last week. But the secrecy behind the number of cases in Houthi areas is leading to exactly the type of outcome that the militia wanted to avoid — it is spreading panic and hysteria among residents, who have no clear sense of the crisis that is surrounding them. The lack of transparency has led many to assume the worst, including that the Houthis are euthanizing COVID-19 patients as a measure to control the disease.

The Houthis made a point of waiting to announce their first case until well after Yemen’s internationally recognized government disclosed it to maintain the narrative that only the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and its backers are to blame for the arrival of the disease in Yemen. They also made sure that the case was attributed to a Somali national found in a “hotel,” which was congruent with their claims that no resident of the territory they control had been infected. The Houthis announced their second case as coming from Aden, continuing their denials of cases in their territory. 

But, after being faced with national and international criticism for their lack of transparency, the Houthis drafted statements justifying their approach and admitting that their suppression of an accurate count is a deliberate policy. Central to the Houthis’ argument is that disclosing the numbers somehow leads to an increase in the infection rate, because the news affects the “morale” of the population, which is completely absurd. What we know about the epidemic from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that the virus spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes; and it can linger on surfaces that an infected person has touched. No one can be infected if they are not somehow exposed to the virus — this is something that Houthi health officials repeatedly fail to explain.

On Saturday, Houthi Minister of Public Health and Population Taha Al-Mutwakel emphasized the same points previously echoed by his spokesperson. He admitted in a press conference that his group was deliberately not disclosing the number of infected people and that this policy was meant for the greater good.

According to Al-Mutwakel, their policy has yielded great outcomes, including a cure rate of more than 80 percent of the cases that appeared in the capital and its governorate, but the exact number of infected remains unknown. 

There are a plethora of reasons why the Houthis would suppress this information, chief among them being their desire to maintain an image of absolute control and order. There is also a possibility that the Houthis’ undisclosed numbers far exceed the numbers reported in areas outside of their control, which could affect their image and rile those opposed to them.

The Houthis have come up with creative ways to justify their suppression of the numbers, describing the official death toll for countries that disclosed the number of infected people as “media terrorism,” because they believe that it spreads fear in the hearts of the people. The Houthis also directly blamed the media for a large number of deaths around the world because they believe the media “created” a panic that was counterproductive to the mental health of patients and “stigmatized” the disease. This is ironic given that the disease is already highly stigmatized by its secrecy in Yemen.

Also worrying is the Houthi leadership’s focus on pseudoscience and anecdotal stories that they communicate with the citizens under their control. In the conference he gave on Saturday, Al-Mutwakel talked about the placebo effect of the virus by telling the story of a man whose vitals spiked when he thought he had coronavirus symptoms, but stabilized as soon as his test results came back negative. Regrettably for the millions who live under the militia’s control, the Houthi officials’ stories and statements end up downplaying the severity of the threat, which is counterproductive because it sidelines the community and underestimates their response in managing the disease.

The culture is, unfortunately, troubling. Dhiaa Al-Din Al-Kibsi, a preacher in the city of Ibb, allegedly stated that the coronavirus does not exist and that the epidemic is nothing but an “international conspiracy” aimed at “preventing the Muslims from praying in mosques” and “breaking families apart.” Another Houthi activist appeared in an online video asking Yemeni youth to take to the battlefield and die with dignity instead of waiting at home like “cattle” to die from the virus. 

Central to their argument is that disclosing the numbers somehow leads to an increase in the infection rate.

Fatima Abo Alasrar

The Houthis have a responsibility to the citizens they are governing, which they cannot meet by keeping their people uninformed. Ultimately, it is not just leadership that will help contain the spread of the virus, but also decisive community engagement and awareness of the threat. When people understand the extent of the problem, they will be able to draw their own socially and culturally acceptable parameters, including not congregating at mosques or markets. Reluctance in sharing the data does not serve the Yemenis, as the Houthis want the world to believe, but instead directly serves a leadership that survives by keeping its population in the dark.

  • Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. Twitter: @YemeniFatima
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