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Exclusive - Coronavirus ‘Black Market’ in Sanaa Deals in Death, Medicine and Food

Exclusive - Coronavirus ‘Black Market’ in Sanaa Deals in Death, Medicine and Food

Monday, 1 June, 2020 - 07:15
Black market thrives as Houthis take advantage of coronavirus outbreak for their own gain. (AFP)

The Houthis’ shutting of cemeteries in Sanaa is just one of many signs of the “black market” that has emerged in Yemen in wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The Iran-backed militias have seized the outbreak to compound the misery and suffering of the Yemeni people, by barring access to cemeteries and concealing vital food and medicine, for their personal gain and enrichment.

Trading in death

Even though the Houthi leaders have been keen on concealing the real number of virus infections and fatalities, social media platforms, the observation of funerals, medical sources and United Nations statements have drawn a pretty bleak picture of the size of the calamity brought about by the outbreak.

Instead of easing the crisis, the Houthis have sought to invest in it.

As the fatalities pile up on Sanaa, Houthi leaders have ordered the closure of main cemeteries, barring the burial of dozens of people, likely virus victims, local sources and witnesses told Asharq Al-Awsat.

They revealed that the Houthis have been demanding hefty payments in return for people to be able to bury their loved ones. “They are trading in death,” they remarked.

The Houthis ordered the Awqaf department in Sanaa to close the Khazima cemetery, one of the oldest in the capital. A sign has been posted at its gate, saying that it will not be open to any new burials.

Informed sources said the Houthis would only allow the burial in exchange for hefty sums.

The destitute have found no choice but to bury their dead in cemeteries on the outskirts of Sanaa.

A Yemeni, who identified himself as Mohammed N., said that his mother passed away three says ago. He is currently unemployed and was forced to pay 150,000 rials, or a hefty 600 dollars, in order to bury her. Prior to the Houthi coup in late 2014, burial costs ranged between 5,000 to 10,000 rials.

Mohammed told Asharq Al-Awsat that costs soar to as much as 300,000 rials in some parts of Sanaa.

Other locals revealed that authorities responsible for the cemeteries are dividing the money with the Houthis.

A local official told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Houthis had previously rejected a proposal to agree on a unified cost of burial. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said the militias will absolutely not ease the suffering of the people as they keep on coming up with more ways to make money at their expense.

Sanitizers disappear off shelves

The Houthis have seen in the coronavirus crisis a new opportunity to create a black market for medicine. The Houthis, through their loyalists, already control the local medicine and import market.

Several Sanaa residents told Asharq Al-Awsat that the majority of pharmacies have “run out” of face masks, forcing them to seek the black market to obtain them.

Health sector workers accused the Houthis of being complicit with medical businesses in creating the black market. They have raised questions over the disappearance of the most basic of medicine at pharmacies.

Equipment gear necessary for to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such as face masks, sanitizers and gloves, can now be found in the black market. Even aspirin is sold on the market at higher prices after it can no longer be found in pharmacies.

Food shortage

Food that has been touted as helpful in preventing the coronavirus has also disappeared from local markets.

Sanaa residents said that lemons, for example, are being sold at record prices because they contain vitamin C, which is allegedly effective in fighting the infection. A kilogram, originally sold at no more than 500 rials, now costs nearly 3,000.

A fruit and vegetable vendor in southern Sanaa told Asharq Al-Awsat that the authorities’ failure to control the prices has been a primary reason why goods now abound in the black market.

He did not rule out the possibility that the Houthis themselves were monopolizing some goods in order to sell them at higher prices, in total disregard to the people’s suffering and economic hardships.

Medical sources in Sanaa and activists revealed that coronavirus cases in Houthi-held regions have soared to the thousands, while fatalities are in the hundreds. People are also opting to keep the infected at home after rumors circulated that the Houthis were killing virus patients as soon as they are admitted to hospital.

The Houthis have admitted to four cases since May 18, claiming two have recovered.

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