Yemen’s Unabating Suffering: War, Poverty and COVID-19

Refugee camp in Yemen. Photo: ECHO/H. Veit

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is being exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19. The world needs to act.

Yemen is a country torn apart by suffering. Since the modern nation’s inception in 1990, conflict has been a constant, with failed political transitions and military insurrections heaping misery and pain upon the populace. In 2015, a bloody civil war broke out, bringing with it a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportion. The fighting still rages on despite suggestions of progress in late 2019, and now, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on a society already immensely fragile, the situation teeters on the brink of unthinkable disaster. 

The Civil War

As touched upon, upheaval has been omnipresent throughout Yemen’s history. The modern-day Republic of Yemen came into being at the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union-allied Democratic Republic of Yemen reunified with the Arab Republic of Yemen, an Islamist state. 

It took less than a year for conflict to arise. Under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh- the former president of the Arab Republic- Yemen opposed the West’s and Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Iraq in 1991, resulting in the suspension of financial aid to Yemen and the harassment of many Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia. In the years that followed, life in Yemen was characterised by discord and instability, with insurgencies and corruption abound. 

The ongoing civil war has its origins in 2011, when a military uprising from the Houthi political group prompted Saleh to hand power over to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi’s tenure as leader was marred by a plethora of problems, from high unemployment to the continued loyalty of security personnel to Saleh. In 2015, the Houthis combined with these security forces in an attempt to seize power, forcing Hadi to flee the country. Resultantly, Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab countries began an air campaign aimed at restoring Hadi to power, receiving logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France throughout. 

Humanitarian Crisis

The incessant conflict has ravaged Yemen, triggering a humanitarian crisis of unparalleled scale. As of March 2020, the UN had confirmed 7,700 civilian casualties, the majority of which were caused by Saudi air strikes. Thousands more have died through preventable means such as malnutrition, inadequate healthcare and disease. 

Fighting has led to food insecurity just short of outright famine- in 2019, the UN estimated that around 24 million people– equating to 80 percent of the population- were verging on both hunger and disease, with 14.3 million in urgent need of assistance. Violence has also destroyed critical infrastructure, from hospitals to the water system, with the latter specifically targeted by Saudi airstrikes. This has contributed towards mass outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, Dengue Fever and measles. 

Despite the severity of the situation, the ongoing violence makes it difficult for much-needed humanitarian aid to reach the Yemeni people. In 2019, a lull in the fighting saw a 50 percent increase in the number of people reached with aid from the World Food Programme– yet this was no more than a fleeting spell of positivity. In April of this year, 31 of the 41 major UN humanitarian programmes had to be either reduced or shut completely, cutting off vital assistance at a time when the situation was rapidly deteriorating. 

COVID-19 

Much of this deterioration was triggered by COVID-19, the arrival of which has created a ‘crisis within a crisis’. Earlier this year, the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned that ‘nowhere else on Earth will COVID-19 spread faster, more widely, and with more dangerous consequences’, and Lisa Grande, the head of the UN’s humanitarian program in Yemen, said that a ‘most likely scenario’ will see 55 percent of Yemen’s population infected. 

The reasons for this unique level of vulnerability are self-evident- Yemen’s healthcare infrastructure has been absolutely decimated by the protracted civil war. As of June this year, only half of the country’s medical facilities were fully functioning, leaving almost 20 million people without access to adequate healthcare. 

The fragility of the healthcare system means that the country is simply not equipped enough to cope- ‘catastrophic shortages’ of test kits and other key supplies have left the population defenceless against infection. In late May, Yemen had access to approximately 6,700 testing kits despite requiring around 9.3 million, evidencing the sheer scale of the challenge faced. 

Poverty too has left the country acutely vulnerable to COVID-19. Almost 18 million people do not have access to clean water and sanitation, conditions that are known to accelerate the transmission of the virus. In addition, the pandemic has thwarted humanitarian efforts, with UN member countries struggling to find the necessary funds. Yet despite this array of factors, the precise impact of COVID-19 is surrounded by a fog of uncertainty. On Aug 4, Worldometer’s COVID-19 tracking data stated that Yemen had experienced 1,734 cases and 499 deaths. In reality, these figures will be much higher, due to the difficulty in performing testing and tracing in Houthi-controlled areas. 

The world cannot stand by as this crisis continues to unfold. We all have a duty to protect the people of Yemen. 

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to asylum seekers.  

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