FRONTLINE

S2021 E5 | CLIP

Yemen's COVID Cover-Up

Yemen-born journalist Nawal al-Maghafi returns to her home country to investigate how the coronavirus pandemic has deepened what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Following six years of war, an estimated 2 million children in Yemen suffer from starvation, and 3.5 million people have been internally displaced.

AIRED: February 09, 2021 | 0:27:28
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TRANSCRIPT

♪ ♪

(bustling market sounds)

>> NAWAL AL-MAGHAFI: This is Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

It's April 2020, and COVID is raging around the world,

but here the city markets are still full of people.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: When this was filmed, other countries were

already under lockdown.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: They're selling qat, a stimulant.

Chewing the leaves is a national addiction.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The city seems to be in denial.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

(man coughing)

♪ ♪

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Three months later, I'm heading to Sanaa.

I'm originally from Yemen, and for the past six years I've been

covering the devastating war here.

This time I've come to see how the virus is impacting

the dire situation, especially here in the north,

which is controlled by the Houthis, a rebel group

backed by Iran.

>> (chanting in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: There've been widespread reports of thousands

of COVID deaths in areas where the internationally recognized

government is in control, but here in the north the Houthis

insist there have only been four cases.

Even before I arrive, doctors have been telling me

the death toll is much higher.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: I'm the first journalist

from an international broadcaster to be allowed

into the country since the pandemic began.

When I get to Sanaa, the Houthis require me to attend

a press conference on the COVID situation.

The health minister, Dr. Taha al Mutawakkil,

spends most of the briefing criticizing

the Houthi's enemies, the Saudi-led coalition

that supports the internationally recognized

government and has blockaded Houthi territory for years.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: He says very little about the pandemic

or what the Houthis are doing to fight it.

(in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: I try to press the minister as he leaves.

(conversing in Arabic):

♪ ♪

>> AL-MAGHAFI: After the press conference,

the Houthis assign me a minder to accompany me wherever I go.

I head for one of Sanaa's main markets, Bab Al Salam.

I'd heard that one of the first COVID cases in Yemen

was a shopkeeper here.

There are signs telling people to wash their hands.

But no one is wearing a mask.

As we walk, we're approached by the man on the left.

We soon realize he's an informant

for the Houthi authorities;

he tells us not to film anything about coronavirus.

A shopkeeper tells me I don't need a mask

because COVID's over.

We're about to interview him when the man interrupts

and tells him what to say.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Getting to the truth isn't going to be easy.

(in Arabic):

The Houthis use their network of local informants

to exert control over the population.

But some people are willing to speak out.

I shake off my minder and go to meet Dr. Ehab Alsaqqaf.

I'm hoping he can help me piece together

what's really going on.

He says the first wave of coronavirus cases has passed

but that its effects were severe.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Ehab is an epidemiologist.

Early on, the Houthi authorities appointed him to a team to test

and trace COVID cases.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: He says his team was reporting COVID numbers

to the Ministry of Health but that publicly

the ministry continued to deny that the virus

had even entered northern Yemen.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Ehab was one of the few people who knew

the true scale of the COVID crisis,

so when his own grandmother needed hospital care,

he took extreme measures.

He set up an intensive care ward for her at home.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(men chanting)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The Houthi authorities put out

very little public information about the spread of COVID,

but they've promoted propaganda videos like this one from May

showing them mobilizing against the virus.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: By May the 5th, the Houthis had admitted

to a single COVID fatality.

But social media would soon tell a different story.

(car horn honks)

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Just 23 days later, this video,

filmed outside Kuwait Hospital,

showed how fast the disease was spreading.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: As soon as COVID hit,

the Houthis banned journalists from hospitals.

But after two weeks of negotiating,

they finally allow me in to one.

They insist that six minders accompany me.

The COVID ward in Kuwait Hospital is supported

by an international NGO, Doctors Without Borders.

It's staffed with locals like Dr. Rania Jashan.

Though the hospital is well equipped compared

to others here, she tells me it was quickly overwhelmed.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Rania said she wasn't allowed to tell me

the exact number of deaths;

but she said that many of those who died were young,

a group considered low risk in other countries.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

(voice breaking):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Despite what was going on inside

their own hospitals, the Houthi authorities continued to deny

they had a COVID crisis.

At the same time, they were rounding up people suspected

of being infected.

Videos posted to Facebook in May show armed men

taking sick people away by force.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Here, a mother is separated from her daughter.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

(gunshots, men shouting)

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Doctors told me they'd heard about many people

who died at home without medical attention.

We found more cellphone footage that shows Houthi teams

from the Ministry of Health collecting bodies

dumped on the street.

We also found Facebook posts memorializing relatives

and friends who died from the virus,

evidence of a far higher death toll

than the authorities were admitting.

In one week in June, we tracked hundreds of them.

Like this one, from the Jaralla family, who lost three brothers.

After all I've seen and heard,

I want to question the Houthi health minister who dodged me

at the press conference.

He finally agrees to meet me in the port city of Hodeidah.

The Saudis have bombed this road many times.

It's a dangerous six-hour drive.

All these lorries are carrying food and aid supplies

to be distributed across the north,

and they can spend days queuing for petrol,

and because of the blockade, not much of it is coming in.

♪ ♪

The Saudi coalition has imposed a blockade on Hodeidah's port

for the last five years to stop the Houthis bringing in arms.

As a consequence, supplies of medicine, food, and fuel

are largely cut off.

It can take months for aid to reach people.

(crowd chattering)

I'm meeting the minister in Hodeidah Central Hospital.

He wants to show me how the blockade affects people here.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(baby crying)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The emergency ward is overwhelmed

with children, most of them suffering from malnutrition.

>> (conversing in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (conversing in Arabic):

(coughing in background)

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The woman was echoing what I'd been hearing

throughout my time in Yemen,

that COVID has been a disaster here.

I pressed the health minister on the scale of the problem.

(in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

(car horns honking)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Just before COVID hit, the Houthis did something

that would worsen the impact of the outbreak.

They threatened to tax foreign aid.

The U.S. responded by suspending $73 million

from programs it supports in the country.

Other countries and aid groups also cut funding

around this time.

(ambulance siren blares)

I want to see the effects of these cuts.

Just north of Sanaa, I'm allowed into the main hospital

in the city of Amran.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: 26-year-old Tariq Qassem tells me

at the beginning of the outbreak he was often the only doctor

working in the hospital's COVID isolation ward.

Without proper protective gear, he caught the coronavirus.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Government doctors like Tariq haven't been

paid regular salaries since 2016.

Instead, they've had to rely on support

from the World Health Organization.

Dr. Tariq says he was getting up to $200 a month, until March.

(in Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The W.H.O. stopped paying doctors

just as COVID hit Yemen.

The head of the W.H.O. in Yemen told us they had no choice

due to their funding being slashed,

and that their contribution was intended only to supplement

the doctors' salaries, not replace them.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: With no pay and no protective gear,

some doctors stopped coming to work.

But others continued.

Dr. Tariq takes me to meet his colleagues.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (conversing Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Dr. Tariq tells me that because

he's not being paid, he can't go home.

His family can't afford to support him.

He's been living in this hospital room since March.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: I head to a region that's been hard hit

by the ongoing war between the Houthis

and the Saudi coalition.

It's called Aslam, and it's 180 miles from Sanaa.

(horn honks)

Saudi air strikes have increased throughout the pandemic.

In 2020, it's estimated that there were almost

twice the amount as the year before.

Many involved U.S.-made bombs.

(people chattering)

There's just been one in a neighboring province.

A coalition air strike hit a convoy of cars on the road,

wounding 15 people and killing eight children.

Between the war and COVID, community health services here

are in a desperate situation.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(baby wailing)

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Nurse Makiya Al Aslami runs

the only health center in the area.

It deals with malnutrition and maternity care.

The aid cuts mean she now has more patients, but less money.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(baby crying)

♪ ♪

>> AL-MAGHAFI: The fighting has displaced

three-and-a-half million people across Yemen.

They're forced to live in makeshift camps like this one.

I accompany nurse Makiya as she does her rounds

looking for COVID cases.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: We find Ali, a father of 17 children.

He lost his home in an air strike a year ago.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Nurse Makiyah wants Ali to be quarantined

in the local isolation center.

But he doesn't want to leave his children.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI (in Arabic):

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: They've lost their homes in the war,

they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

The one thing that that man was terrified of was

that he'd be taken to quarantine, and he doesn't know

who is going to feed his children.

At Nurse Makiya's clinic,

there's a patient who keeps coming back.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Hassan is eight years old.

He's one of an estimated two million children

who are suffering from starvation.

>> (speaking Arabic):

>> AL-MAGHAFI: Severe malnutrition as a baby

has affected Hassan's development.

He can't hear properly; he communicates with his father

in sign language.

>> (speaking Arabic):

(laughs)

♪ ♪

>> Go to pbs.org/frontline for the latest

on the U.S. role in Yemen.

>> They've lost their homes in the war, they don't know where

their next meal is coming from.

>> And an interview with "Iraq's Assassins" filmmaker

Ramita Navai.

>> This is despite the fact we are being escorted

by eight heavily armed men.

>> Connect with "Frontline" on Facebook, Twitter,

and Instagram, and stream anytime on the PBS app

or pbs.org/frontline.

♪ ♪

>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,

visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.

♪ ♪

"Frontline's" "Iraq's Assassins" and "Yemen's COVID Cover-Up"

are available on Amazon Prime Video.

♪ ♪

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