COVID-19 Set to Deepen Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis


In war-torn Yemen, COVID-19 presents an imminent danger to the country’s 30 million people, 80 percent of whom rely on humanitarian aid to survive. For more than five years, brutal conflict has devastated the country and its economy, infrastructure, and public services including the health care system. Famine and malnutrition are commonplace, and infectious diseases, widespread. So far, only six confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in Yemen,  though this small number is surely more related to the lack of capacity for testing. By most accounts, the likelihood is high that the disease will spread through Yemen as the number of cases in neighboring countries continues to grow.

On April 1, following an appeal from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a ceasefire to counter the spread of COVID19, Saudi Arabia unilaterally announced a two-week ceasefire to allow for talks between the warring sides and to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Houthi rebels, however, saw it as a political and media maneuver. Despite calls to protect civilians from the pandemic, clashes between the parties instead escalated. This continued fighting has blocked civilian’s access to humanitarian assistance and will make it even more difficult for aid and health care workers to respond to an outbreak.

The country’s infrastructure and existing resources are not adequate to handle the pandemic, which will only exacerbate an already dire crisis. The conflict has shattered Yemen’s health care system. More than half of all health care facilities are no longer operating or only operating at partial capacity. The entire system is already overwhelmed with treating casualties from the conflict and those who contracted other contagious diseases. To make matters worse, many health care workers have fled the country.

For these reasons, the Yemeni people are especially susceptible to COVID-19 and its effects. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases in the past several years have affected almost every family and have demonstrated the country's vulnerability to infectious diseases. The coronavirus could spread very quickly, particularly in congested urban areas, camps for the internally displaced, rural areas where there are almost no health care facilities, prisons and detention centers, and impoverished communities where residents lack access to medical care, adequate food, clean water, sanitation, and other basic services.

Moreover, parties to the conflict could exploit an outbreak and earnest efforts to contain its spread to impose new measures to control humanitarian action, discriminate against marginalized groups, and suppress rights and freedoms. Today’s news headlines all over the world are dominated by COVID-19 and its impact, but this health crisis should not overshadow the ongoing conflict and the human rights violations in Yemen and undermine efforts to end the war and pursue justice for the victims of these abuses.

Yemen’s worst afflictions today are conflict and famine. For the country to respond effectively to the pandemic, there must be an immediate ceasefire, access to humanitarian aid, and most importantly an inclusive approach to protect all individuals without discrimination. A ceasefire is of utmost urgency to avert the disastrous consequences of a COVID-19 outbreak and to help create conditions for sustainable peace.

PHOTO: Many Yemeni families have been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict and live in informal settlements or in camps like this one in the northwestern governorate of Hajjah. (ECHO/H. Veit)