Volunteer writer, Livia Watts, details the cataclysmic effects Covid-19 has had on the country of Yemen.

2020 has not been short of problems. There is doubt as to whether anyone would have predicted that a global pandemic would dominate the agenda at the turn of the decade. COVID-19 has hailed a fundamental change in the way many carry out their everyday lives. Things we once would have taken for granted; we now crave. Whether that be celebrating a birthday with friends, visiting grandparents, going on a holiday or even something as simple as going to the supermarket. While it is hard to predict precisely how long this pandemic will last, what we do know is that life will continue to lack normality for a significant amount of time. These new social norms that we are seeing may well stick in a post-COVID world. While this may seem like a dire reality for many, and that is not to be understated – in some regions, COVID-19 is an ‘emergency within an emergency’, devastating some of the worlds most undeveloped regions.

As the poorest Arab country, Yemen is no stranger to suffering. 2020 has marked a significant turning point in which the region was declared as the beholder of the world’s largest Humanitarian Crisis. Yemen is a historically violent playground for regional and international actors. After years of violent conflict, the country’s health system has been severely weakened, meaning that a pandemic like COVID-19 rippling through the population has been both difficult to contain and treat. Currently, 80% of Yemen’s population requires critical humanitarian assistance – a devastating 24.1 million people. 

But how did it get to this point? A brief historical overview:

  • During the Arab Spring, Yemen witnessed a change of leadership in which Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced by his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
  • The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings that spread throughout the Arab world in 2010 in pursuit of democracy and better standards of living away from historically oppressive authoritarian leaders and regimes.
  • Yemen’s new leader, President Hadi, struggled to manage the country’s perversion, food insecurity and susceptibility to militant attacks, which led to the Houthi’s (a non-state rebel movement) ousting the Yemeni government from power in 2014.
  • This has meant that Yemen has been bridled in a Civil War for nearly 7 years. During this multi-sided conflict, the Houthi’s have control over proportions of the northwest, including the capital. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has re-established an intermittent presence in the southern port city of Aden’.
  • Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been working against the Houthi rebels’ movement within Yemen through bombing campaigns, a naval blockade and ground forces. This blocked land, sea and air access into Yemen in order to prevent the Houthi’s from importing weapons.
  • Such moves have been criticised internationally as the blockades have helped worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis by blocking access to critical aid and endangering the lives of civilians. 

Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis at a Glance

Hunger and Disease

Health Infrastructure

  • The conflict has helped destroy critical health facilities throughout Yemen. There are currently only 10 health workers per 10,000 people which is ‘less than half of the WHO minimum benchmark’. 
  • Without access to fully functioning equipment and supplies, health workers are severely restrained in their ability to make a significant change to help reduce the suffering of the population.

Population Displacements

  • Population displacements often come hand-in-hand with widespread conflict. In Yemen, the rate of conflict-related displacements will only continue to rise as long as tensions continue within Yemen. To put this into perspective, around 4.3 million people have had to flee their homes in pursuit of a safer living situation, and an estimated 3.3 million people ‘remain internally displaced’. 
  • Some Yemenis have also attempted to return to their homes, only to find devastation and destruction with little opportunities to turn their lives around and get back on track.

What effect has COVID-19 had on Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis?

The pandemic has exacerbated the already existent suffering of Yemen’s population. As previously mentioned, years of conflict have destroyed most of the country’s remaining medical infrastructures. Therefore, COVID-19 in a territory like Yemen can cause fatalities beyond belief. ReliefWeb reported that as of September 1st, there had been ‘more than 1,900 confirmed cases’, resulting in 567 deaths’. However, the key word here is ‘confirmed’. In conflict zones, it is challenging to test and trace, which bodes the question of how many active cases and fatalities there really are in Yemen. Furthermore, the Journal of Global Health stated that ‘Yemen is almost entirely dependent on a resource-limited setting supported by WHO which… only allows testing [for] a small number of highly suspected cases’.

Due to such restrictions, Yemen cannot approach COVID-19 in the same way that countries in the Western World can. In the more developed regions of the world, we are witnessing an emphasis on mass testing and treatment, as well as lockdowns and travel restrictions. Yemen cannot test and treat on such a mass scale. Instead, there needed to be a focus on choke holding the virus at its entry points to try and prevent it from reaching the territory on a mass scale. With this in mind, limiting the movement of people into the country seems to be one of the only ways to limit the rate of infection by reducing the movement of people. In March, some measures were put in place to try and limit countrywide movement, which included the ‘closure or [partial] functioning of 5 international airports’. Alongside this, some authorities put in place preventative measures and screenings for ‘people transiting through… transit points [in] Taizz and Al-Bayda’. 

How effective has this been?

Due to the multi-sided conflict rippling throughout Yemen, it is hard to know exactly how successful these measures have been. With every side of the conflict ultimately having their own agendas to pursue, it can be difficult to know if the figures being put out are accurate. The territory is extremely fragmented, but during a pandemic of this scale, unity is more important than ever before. Global issues like COVID-19 require united global responses. A virus should not be treated as a political issue, but a genuine threat to the lives of millions around the world. To utilise a major global threat as a tool for a political agenda can undoubtedly do more damage than good. Houthi propaganda during the pandemic has been downplaying the nature of the virus, going as far as stating that the ‘Americans have been working for years to benefit from the coronavirus’. Conspiratorial propaganda like this only makes the fight against the pandemic even harder in divided, war-torn regions by spreading misinformation.

Continually, anonymous sources have stated that ’Houthi authorities do not share the results of the tests with doctors and with the WHO when the results are positive’. The level of infections within Houthi controlled areas of Yemen are of particular importance as they currently control some of the most highly populated areas in the country. Despite this, their territories have been reporting some of the lowest infection rates in Yemen. If the Houthi’s have been suppressing figures like many activists claim, their ignorance will cost the lives of many more innocent civilians. Many believe that the Houthi’s are underreporting in an attempt to benefit economically. Larger populations allow for larger economic activity, and thus a lockdown in Houthi territories may cause them to struggle to generate income for their cause.

With such mystery surrounding exactly how many cases and fatalities there have been from COVID-19 in Yemen, and the potential spread of dangerous conspiratorial misinformation – the region is at a breaking point. To make matters worse, due to a lack of critical funding, the UN has had to cut aid into Yemen. Such aid was ‘cut at 300 health centres’ across the country, ‘with lifesaving food distribution also reduced’. With humanitarian programmes being slashed by cuts or shut down entirely, the UN has warned of further measures ‘in [the] coming weeks unless additional funding is received’. Such funding is genuinely critical for the population of Yemen but, with the rate in which COVID-19 has risen globally, it is not surprising that its presence has helped stifle such aid flows. However, the solution to this crisis goes beyond just aid. The President of the International Rescue Committee emphasised that it is also ‘a crisis of diplomacy because there’s a war going on’ and a ‘crisis of politics because the UN is stuck unable to bring the waring parties to heel’.

COVID-19 is not an isolated issue, and it is also not going away anytime soon. As well as trying to protect ourselves from the threat of this virus, we must also remain aware of its ability to intensify the already existing emergencies around the globe. Global unity and awareness is integral – now more than ever. 

Check out https://yemencrisis.carrd.co for links to help and find out more.


Featured header designed by Frankie Stevens.


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