by Athiei Ajuong
Yemen currently faces the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has become markedly worse.
Since 2015, Yemen has faced a humanitarian crisis of grave proportions. An estimated 24 million people, 80% of the population, need some form humanitarian assistance with the severity of needs constantly deepening. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 14.3 million people are in acute need of assistance, a figure that has increased by 27% since last year. To make matters worse, COVID-19 has entered the country at a time when the UN and many other donors have cut back on aid.
At the end of 2019, the Yemeni government and the Houthi political organization had made some agreements in Stockholm, suggesting that the ongoing civil war had turned a corner. Sadly, things are bleak- an escalation in violence in March 2020 means that any form of peaceful resolution is still some distance away. Throughout the conflict, airstrikes targeting health and water facilities, and restrictions on imports have put almost 14 million people on the verge of famine. It is important to note that these airstrikes have been carried out by Saudi Arabia, for whom weapons have been supplied by the USA and UK. In July 2019, the US Senate failed to deliver the 67 votes that were needed to prevent President Trump from sanctioning the sale of arms, thus paving the way for more suffering.
Added to this, it is not a coincidence that the airstrikes targeted health and water infrastructure. Rather, the attacks are thought to be very much intentional, and as a result should be called out for what they are- war crimes. From 2015 to 2019, 17,500 civilians lost their lives due to the conflict, with women and children forming more than a quarter of all civilians killed in air raids.
A distressing statistic provided by Save the Children highlighted that more than 85,000 children may have died of starvation between 2015 and 2018. According to the UN, many children will be pushed to the brink of starvation in 2020. By August 2020, more than 23,000 children with severe acute malnutrition would be at increased risk of dying, with shortages on children’s immunization. Similarly, 19 million people are about to lose access to healthcare if something is not done.
While facing food shortages and famine, Yemen has also grappled with mass outbreaks of preventable diseases. The World Bank estimated that 17.8 million people are without safe water and sanitation, while 19.7 million people are without adequate healthcare. As a result, Yemen has struggled with diseases like cholera, diphtheria, measles, and Dengue Fever. To make matters worse, over 100,000 people were impacted by floods and torrential rains during Yemen’s rainy season this year. The flooding damaged roads, bridges, the electricity grid, and contaminated water supplies. This kind of environment poses a huge risk now that COVID-19 has entered the country, creating conditions conducive to the spread of infection and leaving the population and infrastructure highly vulnerable.
Many experts feared the impact COVID-19 would have on a country like Yemen. They believed that a spread of the virus could cause the country to have a higher death toll than that experienced in civil war. At present, the Yemeni government has reported 1760 detected cases of COVID-19 with over 500 deaths so far, though many believe these figures to be underreported. The problem is the country’s health system has been decimated by war. As such, there is no way to ascertain the appropriate data on how the virus is spreading. Many districts around the country have no medical doctors and that strain will only increase.
Now that the virus has entered Yemen, doctors must decide between working with little protection or avoid working for fear of infection. With such an unstable situation, Yemen’s economy is failing and the Yemeni rial has depreciated by more than 75% of its value since 2015. Even if doctors are available, they do not have the resources to provide adequate healthcare, nor do many members of the public have the funds to access healthcare. All the while, a country is being decimated by war and considerable numbers of Yemeni people are internally displaced or have sought refuge in countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, and others.
As it stands, there are many immediate challenges that need to be addressed for the suffering of Yemen’s people to end. Without quality sanitized water the people will be at continued risk of contracting cholera and other diseases. Food shortages and malnutrition lowers the immune system and puts many people at further risk of contracting COVID-19. More international cooperation is needed to bring this tragedy to an end. Yemen needs more in the way of funding and humanitarian assistance if we are to aid those who are under serious threat. We all deserve a chance at a life; more needs to be done to help the people of Yemen get theirs.
Athiei Ajuong is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organization of immigration solicitors that has offered free legal advice to NHS staff over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.