Yemen’s Narcotic Markets Flourish Despite COVID-19 Threat

As the world leaders battle the coronavirus pandemic leading to lockdown of many commercial activities including markets, Yemen’s capital Sanaa, downtown districts selling qat — the ubiquitous mild narcotic is still bustling with people.

Not only did they flout social distancing rules, Yemen select bunches of the chewable leaf from vendors packed into the narrow lanes crowded with stalls.

“If the qat markets were closed, believe me when I say that 98 percent of Yemeni people would object,” Sanaa resident and avid consumer Ali al-Zubeiry told AFP.

“We appeal to the authorities not to close the qat markets because Yemenis live off it,” he said — while adding it would probably be a good idea to move them to more open space.

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Yemen has been involved in civil war since 2014 and long the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest nation is a major producer and consumer of qat, which is banned in some countries. However, it has been part of Yemen’s social fabric for thousands of years.

Yemen that was once best known for its coffee industry had diverted to making easy profits from at, which has eclipsed that trade and spread into other agricultural lands, around the Red Sea and in African countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia where it also flourishes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 90 percent of adult males in Yemen partake for several hours a day, with some women and children also adopting the habit.

Policemen were seen on the streets chewing the green plant, stashed in plastic bags next to them while they carry out their duties.

“The chewing of qat leaves releases chemicals structurally related to amphetamines, which give the chewer a mild high that some say is comparable to drinking strong coffee,” according to the WHO.

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Iran-backed Huthi rebels are the ones controlling Qat sellers in Sanaa, and they continue to display bags of their product to customers in the markets, transacting without precautionary measures like masks or gloves.

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