Yemen has been fearing a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 since the first case was announced on April 10. Two people are known to have died from the virus. Now, the war-torn country of over 25 million, has confirmed that five new cases of the novel coronavirus. The could be far-reaching and long-term consequences if the voices of Yemeni’s go unheard.
An extension of the ceasefire was announced by the Saudi-led coalition on the 24 April. Ostensibly, the ceasefire was agreed so that vital humanitarian supplies could reach those in need. But the Houthi group, who ousted the government from power in 2014, claim that this did not stop the fighting.
“The aggression didn’t stop … and until this moment there are tens of continuous airstrikes,” Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam told Al Jazeera. It has since been reported that airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have gone up by 30% since the declaration of a ceasefire.
Tamuna Sabadze, Yemen Country Director at the International Rescue Committee, said that “with an increase in fighting and COVID-19 hitting the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Yemen is on the brink of catastrophe. A ceasefire means an end to the fighting, yet, we are seeing the opposite on the ground. An increase of airstrikes in Yemen is putting COVID-19 mitigation efforts and the overall humanitarian response at serious risk.”
“with an increase in fighting and COVID-19 hitting the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Yemen is on the brink of catastrophe."
The secondary effects of COVID-19 in Yemen could be catastrophic. UN agencies are already feeding 13 million people in the country. But, amidst reports by the World Food Programme that the virus could push 265 million people into acute food scarcity (double last year’s total), the situation in Yemen is likely to become even more precarious than it already is.
With a decrease in agricultural production and a general lowering of purchasing power due to the virus, the situation for many civilians is becoming extremely precarious. Yemen’s health systems, already in disarray from years of violence, will come under increased strain.
2020 has already been a hard year for the country. Torrential rain has exacerbated cases of cholera, with a suspected 2 million cases in almost all of Yemen’s districts. Flash floods in the South last week worsened the situation. Five million more children are now at risk.
the virus could push 265 million people into acute food scarcity (double last year’s total)
It’s a sign of the media coverage of the war that the New York Times reported, in a sympathetic article, the lower figure of 110,000 as reported by the UN. The WHO, however, puts the number at 2 million cholera cases.
Methods of containing COVID-19 will prove more difficult than in other countries. Sanitation and hygiene are essential if the population is to avoid spreading the virus. But with more than 50% without access to clean water, the ability to wash hands and surfaces will prove near impossible.
A report on the 23 April in the medical journal The Lancet points out that there is a “shortage of technical staff required for field investigation or active surveillance. Moreover, no national workforce strategy exists to employ epidemiologists. The national laboratory system is rudimentary and relies on a few central laboratories—ie, the National Central Public Health Laboratory in Sana'a and its four branches in Aden, Taiz, Hadramout, and Hodeidah governorates.” There is also a massive shortage in PCR testing kits.
The UN has already warned that there is a “very real possibility” the virus is amongst communities in the country undetected. This means infection rates will spread quickly by contact with unknowing carriers. It also makes the relief efforts harder to organize and prioritize.
The UN has already warned that there is a “very real possibility” the virus is amongst communities in the country undetected.
A report by ACAPS and Save the Children suggests that the death rate in Yemen will be higher than the 3% average seen worldwide. “Death rates are higher than the global average due to the underlying poor health conditions, lowered immunity among a malnourished population, and limited medical resilience in the general population,” the report says.
With only 51% of Yemen’s medical facilities functioning, it will prove difficult to help those who have contracted COVID-19. In November 2019, for example, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition destroyed a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières. There have been 140 such strikes on hospitals since the war broke out. An estimated 20 million have no access to healthcare.
With only 51% of Yemen’s medical facilities functioning, it will prove difficult to help those who have contracted COVID-19.
The Lancet report argues that “Yemen has structural vulnerabilities that have developed over a protracted period of conflict and poor governance, and its health system has suffered the most. To prevent a total collapse of Yemen's fragile health system, the government and the international community should act now more decisively.”
Countries around the world now scramble over personal protective equipment and testing kits to fight and track the virus. The risk is that those places which we have chosen to ignore are the worse served when it comes to the distribution of life-saving equipment. The world can no longer afford to forget the plight of Yemen.
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