Satellite imagery of Aden indicates scale of pandemic in Yemen

Bethan McKernan Middle East correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

A groundbreaking study using high-resolution satellite imagery to analyse graveyards has found that deaths have nearly doubled in Aden, the centre of Yemen’s coronavirus outbreak.

The discovery has given a sense of the true scale of the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the vulnerable country.

The research, not yet peer-reviewed but released on Wednesday, was done by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the geospatial analysis specialists Satellite Applications Catapult.

The researchers used satellite pictures, official data sources and interviews with researchers in Aden city to quantify burial activity across all the identifiable cemeteries within the Aden governorate.

The team found that between April and September 2020 there were about 2,100 excess deaths in the area, against an expected baseline of about 1,300 deaths.

Related: Children forced to beg or work as hunger eclipses fear of Covid-19 in Yemen

The findings represent the first significant quantitative data on Yemen’s Covid-19 outbreak, and should assist pandemic response planning and other vital humanitarian interventions. A similar project by the same team is under way in Somalia.

The lead author, Emilie Koum Besson, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “In a context like Yemen statistics are unreliable or just projections, and even actors on the ground have difficulty collecting accurate data.

“You can say x or y about the pandemic, but if there’s no data for it you can’t really know the impact. Using satellite imagery to create public health data is a very new science and we hope it will prove to be useful in places affected by conflict.”

Yemen, which the UN says has experienced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore Yemen’s government broke out five years ago, has been particularly susceptible to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yemen Covid chart

While the official total number of coronavirus cases is just 2,060, and deaths are put at 599 to date, testing capabilities are almost non existent. A study published in July also found that at least 97 Yemeni healthcare workers had already died of the disease, a number suggesting the true caseload and mortality figure was far higher than recorded.

While the peak of the pandemic appears to have passed in the city of Aden, healthcare and aid workers are worried that the disease is exacerbating or obscuring other pressing issues for Yemen’s vulnerable population.

On Tuesday UN officials warned that acute child malnutrition had reached its highest level ever recorded in the parts of the country for which data was available, with nearly 100,000 children now at risk of dying.

While an exchange of many prisoners last week raised hopes that substantive peace talks could be restarted, the coronavirus pandemic, economic decline, floods, escalating armed conflict, and significant underfunding of this year’s global appeal for aid to Yemen, have contributed to the worsening humanitarian situation.

The UN says it had, by mid-October, received only $1.43bn (£1.1bn) of the $3.2bn (£2.45bn) needed for the entire 2020 Yemen humanitarian response.