With Yemen’s five-year-long war generating what the United Nations called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” the new global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic risks wreaking further devastation to civilian lives should it spread to the country.
Yemen’s healthcare system is already on the brink with over a million cases of cholera – the worst recorded epidemic of the disease in history, along with other flourishing ailments. Millions are severely malnourished, and most Yemenis depend on humanitarian aid to survive. Around three-quarters of civilians already do not have access to healthcare as only 50 percent of Yemen’s healthcare facilities fully function, largely owed to Saudi Arabia’s deliberate targeting of infrastructure as a war tactic against the Houthi rebels. The war and Saudi-UAE led blockade of vital ports means many civilians cannot receive crucial relief for their current suffering.
Health experts and Yemeni medical workers therefore fear the country would struggle to deal with an emergence of COVID-19 should the virus breakout.
“The health system [in Yemen] is functioning at 50 percent of its capacity.”
“In Yemen, we cannot overwhelm the already fragile health system. The health system is functioning at 50 percent of its capacity,” Muneera al Mahdli, Communication and Media Relations Officer for WHO in Yemen, told Inside Arabia. “If the public does not understand what COVID-19 is and how to protect themselves, an introduction of the disease will overrun Yemen’s hospitals and healthcare facilities and pull health workers away from people who are severely ill and need treatment.”
“We need to remain vigilant by taking urgent and essential measures and scaling up our preparedness and response efforts. We need to respond together in order to stop community transmission of the disease once that first case hits.”
Aylan Abdulhaq, a medic at Al Thawrah Hospital in Taiz, told Inside Arabia that a lack of awareness about COVID-19 in society, as well as the country’s fragile conditions from the war, heightens the risk of the virus spreading.
“Hospitals will not be able, with their current capabilities, to treat critical cases if the virus spreads,” added Abdulhaq.
As of April 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported zero coronavirus cases in Yemen. Yet the coronavirus is growing across the region. Suspicions surround even Syria’s claim of 16 cases, while it is awash with Iranian proxy forces, and Iran is the most affected Middle Eastern country. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have intervened in Yemen since March 2015, have reported hundreds of cases, even as the real figures may be much higher.
However, mass production of face masks in the capital Sanaa has commenced, while dealers of the popular narcotic Qat have provided extra cleaning and covering supplies.
Meanwhile on March 14, Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Houthi rebels, though in conflict throughout the war, mutually announced the closure of schools and flights into the capital Sanaa, raising fears that otherwise vital aid deliveries would decrease.
“Despite a small number of changes, there is no real widespread preparation to deal with the virus.”
Mohammad Hojily, a Yemen affairs commentator based in Sanaa, told Inside Arabia: “Despite a small number of changes, there is no real widespread preparation to deal with the virus and the health system has no real capabilities to discover it, let alone treat it.”
“I have only seen a tiny number of people wearing masks and taking other visible precautions,” he added.
WHO recommends regularly washing one’s hands as a key measure to prevent spreading COVID-19. However Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch tweeted: “Already a scarce commodity, the war is depleting the water supply in Yemen. In the Coronavirus era, how [are] civilians . . . supposed to frequently wash their hands? How can they do that when the contamination of water has already led to the spread of a crippling cholera epidemic?”
Enduring a severe economic crisis, where the Yemeni riyal’s value has plummeted in value and even basic goods are unaffordable, millions of civilians would struggle to afford tests and other essential preventative measures like sanitation. An inability to mass test civilians makes it difficult to track and treat any spread of the coronavirus.
On March 20, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Relief (KS Relief) announced medical assistance worth $3.5 million USD to Yemen’s government in case of a coronavirus outbreak, including various supplies and sanitization. That is a pittance considering the billions spent by the Kingdom on its endless war on Yemen and the cost of the destructions of Yemeni infrastructure and facilities, which it inflicted on one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the National Interest, already in 2018, “the war [was] estimated to have cost the Saudis upwards of $100 billion [USD].”
The Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has limited authority across Yemen, and Riyadh’s previous aid donations to Yemen have largely neglected Houthi-controlled areas, since they are a means of securing its soft power. Therefore, such deliveries will not remedy most of Yemen’s population, given that a majority live in Houthi territories.
The Saudi-UAE-led blockade on Yemen has restricted the flow of aid and goods, meaning substantial supplies cannot reach Yemeni civilians.
Meanwhile the Saudi-UAE-led blockade on Yemen has restricted the flow of aid and commercial goods, meaning substantial aid supplies cannot currently reach Yemeni civilians. Yemen’s battered healthcare system would in fact require an unrestricted flow of aid to bolster it against a potential outbreak.
Though the UAE still wields significant influence in southern Yemen through its proxy forces, and has likewise delivered humanitarian assistance to Yemen’s south, there has been no Emirati support to fight against a potential COVID-19 outbreak. Furthermore, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely prioritize containing the coronavirus within their own borders, meaning Yemen would face more humanitarian neglect.
The increasing violence on the ground creates additional difficulties, as fighting has often restricted aid groups from operating in conflicted areas. Ongoing fighting since January between the Houthi rebels and government, after a few shaky months of peace, has erupted again in northern regions. Meanwhile brewing tensions between the separatist Southern Transitional Council and Hadi government risk erupting into clashes in Yemen’s south. While a peaceful solution has not been brokered, external aid will also be futile.
“Because Yemen is at war, I think coronavirus will arrive. There are Yemeni people who work in Saudi Arabia who cross the border, maybe some will be infected by the virus and this could spread it quickly if it arrives,” Ahmad Algohbary, a Sanaa-based activist, told Inside Arabia.
Though the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has established quarantined areas in the northern province of Sadaa, Algohbary fears this could not be enough.
“Millions could be affected,” Algohbary said. “Many Yemenis are desperate to make an income, and due to the severe economic problems, people will not want to stop their already low-paying jobs. Already being the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, it will add more suffering to the Yemeni people.”
“Yemen could become a ghost country,” he added.
Should a coronavirus outbreak occur, Yemen will face further losses of life, economic paralysis, and would be powerless to alleviate any damages.
Indeed, should an outbreak occur, Yemen will not only face further losses of life and economic paralysis—as other countries have experienced, it would also be powerless to alleviate any damages.
Yemenis have faced a harsh blockade and years of war, which the United States and United Kingdom’s vast military support to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition has created. Even if Yemen is somehow spared from a coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic’s impact on global powers means there could be even less incentive to address Yemenis’ enduring suffering.