Yemen in a Global Pandemic

By: Hayfa Ali 

Covid-19 could push Yemen to the brink of collapse according to leading humanitarian experts. The country which has been plunged into an ongoing civil war referred to as “the worst man made humanitarian disaster” as over 8% are reliant on humanitarian assistance. Ceaseless fighting has seen the destruction of infrastructure, killing an estimated 100,00 people according to Global Conflict Tracker, whilst millions more are facing famine, disease and displacement. However, since the arrival of the Covid-19 virus, the conditions in Yemen are feared to make the humanitarian disaster much worse.

 The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) warns that the speed and severity of the global pandemic may force Yemen’s deteriorating health system to collapse. Whilst addressing a Geneva briefing, Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated “We hear from many of them that Yemen is really on the brink right now. The situation is extremely alarming; they are talking about that the health system has in effect collapsed.”

 This is in part due to repeated airstrikes and ongoing fighting which have destroyed up to 50% of hospitals across the country (International Rescue Committee, 2019) The remaining hospitals have reported lack of medical supplies which drastically prevents attempts to limit the spread of the virus and deal with the volume of other illness’ such as malnutrition and cholera.

 The number of displacement camps, the lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation has led to fertile grounds for the transmission of Covid-19. This is exacerbated by rampant malnutrition as millions of Yemenis suffer with existing health conditions including weak immune systems, undermining the recovery rate of covid-19.

 The Assistant Director for the Near East and North Africa Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Mr Abdessalam Ould Ahmed reiterate the sentiment stating “The health system was already under heavy stress and will be overwhelmed if Covid-19 continues to spread…it will affect the movement of people and the movement of goods.”

This has been evident in the port city of Aden, an area the interim government has declared “infested” with coronavirus with 68 deaths occurring over a two week period. The flash flooding last month made the situation worse as it blocked access to treatment centers and stagnant waters may bring more infectious diseases including malaria.


Health crisis

 Health workers are reluctant to enter hospitals and are forced to refuse patients as they lack Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies to treat patients.  Health workers have not received a salary for the last three years and only the week prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.

 A BBC report also highlights that the best equipped hospital in Sana’a only has 200 ventilators and capacity for 16 beds. Other NGOs confirm there are only 200 intensive care unit (ICU) beds to support a population of up to 30 million people. Medics have been appealing to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN to assist and equip hospitals with PPE, ICU beds and additional testing centres.


Confirmed cases

 To date, the internationally recognized government has confirmed up to 560 cases of coronavirus with a total of 129 deaths from areas under its control. Meanwhile Houthi controlled areas, predominantly large urban towns have reported 4 case and 1 death all in the capital city, Sanaa The Houthis have been facing sharp criticism for preventing accurate number of Covid-19 cases and failing to put preventative measures in place. However, the UN warns that lack of medical supplies and facilities means the spread may be multiplying largely undetected, as patients never get to reach health facilities and thus not included in statistics.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) warns that Yemen is performing only 31 tests per one million people, ranking it amongst the lowest scores globally.


Humanitarian funding cut

However, despite the dire situation, it has been reported that 75% UN Programmes have been forced to shut down and reduce operations and the World Food Programme has cut rations in half.

“It’s almost impossible to look a family in the face, to look them in the eyes and say, ‘I’m sorry but the food that you need in order to survive we have to cut in half,’” Lise Grande, resident UN coordinator for Yemen, told The Associated Press.

The cut in funding is due to several factors, most notably cited is the obstruction of the rebel militias Houthi who govern Sana’a amongst other territories.

Grande said the Houthis are working to become more transparent, which could allow more donor countries to provide aid. The goal is to raise $2.41 bn to cover essential costs for the next 6 months.

To date, the UN has only received 15% out of the required $3.5 billion it has aimed for in 2020. With millions on the brink of famine and coronavirus rapidly spreading, more money is needed, however global economic recession means most countries are also struggling to deal with their own coronavirus outbreaks.

The impact of covid-19 on global economies is also expected to have a domino effect on Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, as the FAO anticipate a decline in remittances from Yemenis in the Gulf, which estimated at $3.8 bn in 2019. Many Yemeni’s livelihoods and income were already destroyed from the war, pushing more families into poverty. The reliance on foreign source of income was paramount to mitigate this however the global pandemic’s far reaching impact has weakened Yemen’s economy further.

 At the Labour Friend of Yemen, we have urged the British government and all political parties to take immediate steps to coordinate an effective and rapid response to the worsening conditions in Yemen. Our recommendations are:

  1. Donors, aid organisations and neighbouring countries should move swiftly to deliver the necessary aid and assistance to help strengthen Yemen’s shattered healthcare system.
  2. The UN needs to urgently facilitate and assure the delivery of all required medical equipment into all different regions in Yemen.
  3. The UK should work intensively with the UN to put the necessary pressure on all warring parties to implement a swift and binding six month ceasefire in order to allow the success of international, regional and local efforts to control the pandemic.
  4. Local authorities working on COVID-19 frontlines must be fully empowered to overcome current fragmentations of power and resources to allow for successful planning and implementation.
  5. Donors, aid organisations and neighbouring countries should provide sufficient supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to all health workers in Yemen and fund local productions of PPE.