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COVID-19: Yemen’s ‘unprecedented calamity’

Looking ahead, the misery in Yemen is set to increase, possibly exponentially, as COVID-19 keeps on transmitting across the country.

Analysis | Middle East

COVID-19 is ravaging Yemen, a country that was already suffering from the world’s worst humanitarian crisis prior to this pandemic’s outbreak. The United Nations warns that the war-torn country’s coronavirus death toll may surpass the number of Yemeni deaths stemming altogether from armed conflict, hunger, and other diseases, including cholera, dengue fever, and malaria, since 2015. Although this global pandemic threatens all countries worldwide, multiple factors make Yemenis — as well as African migrants in Yemen — extremely vulnerable to coronavirus.

The Saudi-led Arab coalition’s nearly five-and-a-half years of bombing Yemen and warfare between various Yemeni actors have created conditions across the country which make it nearly impossible to effectively cope with Yemen’s COVID-19 crisis. The multidimensional civil war has left millions of Yemenis without potable water, sanitation, or access to health care, enabling coronavirus to easily spread like wildfire across Yemen. With malnourishment and chronic illnesses so widespread, it is far more difficult for Yemenis to survive once infected with the virus. Roughly one-quarter of Yemenis infected with coronavirus have died from the pathogen. That is five times higher than the average rate worldwide.

Years ago, the U.N. labeled Yemen the “most needy place on Earth.” Currently, four out of five Yemenis rely on aid for survival and millions live on the brink of starvation. A consequence of the COVID-19 crisis has been a drying up of international aid worldwide. This year, the U.N. faces a shortfall of roughly $1 billion in funding, which has led to an already chronically underfunded health care system in Yemen completely collapsing.

According to Lise Grande, who heads the U.N.’s humanitarian operations in Yemen, this shortfall has resulted in half of Yemen’s U.N.-supported hospitals shutting down. “A week before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Yemen we ran out of money and had to stop allowances for 10,000 frontline health workers across the country,” she explained. “In the middle of COVID, it's devastating.” Doctors Without Borders has stated that in Yemen’s second largest city, Aden — home to approximately 800,000 people — there are only 18 ventilators and only 60 hospital beds for coronavirus patients.

COVID-19 is not the only virus infecting Yemenis. Chikungunya, which mosquitos transmit, is another. There have also been at least 100,000 confirmed cholera cases, further burdening Yemen’s health care system. To make matters worse, during this year’s spring season, Yemen suffered from flash floods which destroyed Aden’s power grid.

Enter politics

On top of all of these factors, the politics of Yemen’s civil war have severely exacerbated the nation’s coronavirus crisis. Today, there are three major power centers in the country. There is an Iranian-backed Houthi proto-state based in Sana‘a. In Aden, there is an Emirati-backed self-declared breakaway government ruled by the Southern Transitional Council. Nestled in between, there is the U.N.-recognized, Saudi-backed government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The virus itself does not recognize political differences and threatens all Yemenis, which in an ideal set of circumstances would prompt the country’s warring factions to agree to a ceasefire in order to cope with the pathogen. Tragically, however, that has not taken place in Yemen. In fact, the COVID-19 crisis has only added more vitriol and hostility to the relations between these three sides of the conflict. Rather than setting aside differences, these three power centers have been busy pointing their fingers at each other and fueling (dis)information campaigns about the virus for political purposes. At the same time, disputes over which actor is entitled to receive the international aid which does arrive has only exacerbated the suffering.

Without a central authority governing Yemen, a successful nationwide response to COVID-19 pandemic is highly unrealistic. The conflict makes it essentially impossible for any authority to enforce social distancing and prevents humanitarian workers from reaching certain areas because of fears of being caught in the crossfire. Furthermore, with these different sides carrying on with their fighting, resources are continuing to be channeled into the armed conflict rather than toward efforts to combat coronavirus.

Looking ahead, the misery in Yemen is set to increase, possibly exponentially, as COVID-19 keeps on transmitting across the country, which was already the Arab world’s poorest prior to the beginning of the ongoing armed conflict. At this juncture, outsiders can only estimate Yemen’s current coronavirus death toll as authorities in the country have provided official numbers which are far too low to be taken seriously, and the amount of testing which has taken place is so small. Yet with burial prices increasing seven-fold in certain areas of the country, it is indisputable that the number of cases and true death toll is going up drastically.

The intersection of war and multiple health crises makes Yemen’s future inevitably calamitous. Under the best of circumstances, the warring parties could agree to a lasting ceasefire which could help Yemenis themselves and foreign humanitarian groups begin to address the pandemic’s horrifying impact on the country. Without such a ceasefire, however, the second half of 2020 could prove to be the most nightmarish six months that Yemen has ever experienced.

There is no denying that Yemen’s current situation is a stain on humanity.

Medical professionals examine those coming to the southern city of Taiz, Yemen. March 24, 2020 (Photo: anasalhajj /
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