Sana’a, Yemen – As a journalist covering the heavy toll on the people due to Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, counting the dead has become a routine job—a death toll of about 20 people should not strike one as a high toll. Yet, the death of ten child leukemia patients and severe illness to nine others in Yemen’s capital Sana’a late last month has been shocking. An initial probe by the health ministry suggested the kids were injected with smuggled and contaminated drugs and that the case was referred to the public prosecution for further investigation.
A closer look at how the Sana’a-based government, mainly led by the Houthi group, dealt with the incident reveals a high degree of irresponsibility.
The incident occurred on Sept 24, but it took the health ministry twenty days to issue a suspicious statement about what happened. In fact, it was only after the victims’ families and rival media outlets took their grievances to social media that the health ministry issued a statement. First, it headlined the statement with “the disastrous consequences of the [Saudi] aggression and blockade on the safety of the people and the decline of the treatment services, with the latest victims being innocent kids.” No one denies that the Saudi war on Yemen has inflicted so much damage on people’s lives and health systems. But blaming the Saudi blockade for the contaminated injections was a lame attempt to deflect the mounting criticism and outrage. The statement said that the drug was not tested by the health department tasked with drug testing before being administered to the patients. It didn’t say why that was the case. It implied that the drug, which is usually given to the patients free of charge, was being held by Saudi Arabia, allowing for the smuggled and contaminated drugs to make their way into the market. That is partly true, albeit it doesn’t exonerate the health ministry of the blame. One should not help an enemy kill its own people if ever that was the case in this incident. It also said that the Saudi’s use of “internationally prohibited weapons” has seen a high increase in cancer patients, a claim that may be true yet irrelevant. The statement backfired when the public pointed out those lame justifications—while the overall blockade is contributing to the suffering of all people, the sole responsibility for this incident rests with the health ministry alone, they argue. A drug test by the ministry would have saved those children’s lives. The public and I were profoundly skeptical and called for sacking the health minister and anyone else who may be responsible, something the government appears to continue ignoring.
Aware of the continued outrage, the health ministry held a 45-minute presser on Oct 18. But the senior officials kept repeating the same falsehood instead of addressing the key questions. Not only that, but they also asked the public to be grateful for the “efforts” the ministry has made during the eight years of war to keep the health system operational despite its many flaws. Until this recent incident, many of the estimated 24 million people who live under the control of the Sana’a government have been thankful for the health care they receive at government-run facilities. The three officials briefing the journalists evaded answering questions on why the ministry failed to inspect this contaminated drug before being administered to the patients. “This incident should be a reminder that the [Saudi] blockade on Sana’a airport and Hodeidah port should be lifted so that the state can control the entry of drugs,” said Muhammad Mi’sar, director of the Supreme Board of Doctors, who leads the investigation.
Muhammad al-Ghaili, head of the Supreme Board of Drugs and Medical Appliances (SBDMA), the body responsible for checking the drugs before being distributed to the market, spoke next but didn’t address the issue of who should be held accountable. Instead, he listed some “new” measures the ministry was taking to ensure such mistakes won’t happen again, which were already the core responsibility of the ministry. “I reaffirm that it will never be the same again after this incident,” said al-Ghaili. When asked again, he claimed that “drug testing isn’t the responsibility of SBDMA,” He said it only controls the import and manufacturing of drugs. He said that the responsibility of testing and inspecting drugs is distributed among different bodies and that they’re working on assigning one body with overlapping responsibilities. He said a bill was drafted and sent to the legal ministry in that regard. Local health agencies, he said, were the ones tasked with inspecting and monitoring drugs at the pharmacies. “Awareness is important here at this period of time,” he said. That was again another suspicious remark by a senior health official. According to paragraph (b) of the law establishing SBDMA, one of its tasks includes “establishing a tight system for controlling local and imported medicines/drugs and medical supplies and determining their types, quantities, and quality.” Paragraph (d) of the law states that SBDMA “shall work to establish a central laboratory to examine imported and locally manufactured drugs to ensure that they comply with international drug standards, register and authorize their use.” It added that it shall contribute to “the technical supervision of all pharmacies and drug stores.”
The Yemeni people know pretty well that Saudi Arabia is their main enemy. To be yet again manipulated by their own public service officials is eroding whatever trust they have in their government. There have been times when ministers were sacked over “corruption” charges even before the results of an investigation came out. But those were representative of parties not affiliated with Ansar Allah, the political name of the Houthi group that dominates the government. There needs to be a transparent investigation with independent bodies involved—it should investigate the reported involvement of SBDMA in the entry of contaminated drugs for personal gains. Most importantly, whoever turns out to be guilty should be punished. Any attempt to buy the silence of the grieved families should further enhance the idea that we are being ruled by a bunch of cronies who care for nothing but their own interests.
Unless a prompt and fair response is provided, the public shall list the Sana’a government, mainly the Houthi group, as number two on the list of their enemies.