Medical professionals examine those coming to the southern city of Taiz, Yemen. March 24, 2020 (Photo: anasalhajj / Shutterstock.com)
Helping Yemen beat COVID-19 isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics

With so much attention in the United States being paid to the response, or lack thereof, to COVID-19 and recent protests that have taken our nation by storm after the murder of George Floyd, Yemen is once again being forgotten by mainstream press. But with news that an urgent U.N. appeal for assistance to the war-torn country came out $1 billion short, including a suspension in assistance by USAID, and reports of rapidly increasing cases of the novel coronavirus in Yemen, health experts fear there may be a convergence of crises that completely overwhelm the country.

U.S. lawmakers must take immediate action to restore congressionally appropriated funds to Yemen, particularly considering the acute need and the role the U.S. had in weakening Yemen’s healthcare infrastructure.

The suspension of USAID funding comes at a fragile time for Yemen, occurring alongside a 50 percent cut in aid to most of the country by the World Food Program, the reduction or closing of three quarters of all major United Nations aid programs, and a rollback of World Health Organization programming. Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, recently told Al Monitor, “Yemen needs support now — literally, right now. There are shortages of absolutely everything that’s needed to treat the people who are likely to become ill.”

USAID has cited Houthi obstruction as the main reason for suspending assistance to North Yemen. While Houthi obstruction to principled humanitarian assistance is indeed unacceptable, a blanket suspension of aid is too. Many international donors and aid agencies have successfully pushed back against Houthi obstruction and secured a walk-back of a proposed 2 percent tax on assistance and agreement to allow biometric accountability measures. Regardless of Houthi activity, now is not the time for suspending aid, as the majority of suffering will be felt not by Houthi leadership, but by innocent Yemenis.

Before COVID-19, the U.N. described Yemen as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The United Nations Development Program reported that, should trends have continued, by the end of 2019, the conflict would have claimed the lives of 140,000 children under five. That number will grow exponentially if aid remains suspended. A majority of Yemenis are immune-suppressed — weakened by hunger, cholera and other diseases. Yemenis have access to only half the country’s health care facilities, since 50 percent have been destroyed or closed because war. Sadly, most of the functional health facilities don’t have the capacity to treat COVID-19, lacking adequate testing and Personal Protective Equipment.

U.S. support for Saudi-coalition airstrikes has systematically destroyed much of Yemen’s healthcare system. The independent Yemeni organization Mwatana for Human Rights reported that 35 coalition air raids on 32 health facilities occurred between 2015 and 2018. Despite Congress passing legislation to end U.S. military support and block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. continues to provide intelligence sharing and logistical support for coalition airstrikes, commercial licenses for sustaining fighter aircraft used in Saudi-UAE offensive operations in Yemen, and billions in weapons sales.

To add insult to injury, the Trump administration announced last week that it’s moving ahead with the sale of an additional $478 million in new precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, and new co-production licenses for Raytheon to expand its manufacturing in the Kingdom.

If that’s not enough to change course, helping Yemen is just good politics.  According to new polling by Morning Consult, 80 percent of Americans believe that international assistance to countries with “weaker heath systems to help fight this pandemic are investments that make America safer” and 79 percent  “supported additional funding for the State Department, the USAID, and other agencies to fight the coronavirus globally, to limit its spread to the United States.”

Congress must take action immediately to block new weapons to Saudi Arabia, obtain a veto-proof majority to end military support for the war on Yemen, and restore congressionally appropriated funds to Yemen before it’s too late.

Members that speak out for aid to Yemen can rest easy knowing that the public overwhelmingly supports a robust international response to tackle COVID-19. Congress has the power to take action, and it’s clear that Yemen can’t wait any longer as it teeters on the edge of catastrophe. But time is running out and the fate of millions of innocent Yemenis hangs in the balance.