Coronavirus and War in Yemen: On the precipice of severe famine, is there any hope left for the future?
Image Credit: BBC, Yemen: Coronavirus in a War Zone

Yemen, labelled the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, is on the brink of widespread famine as the impact of coronavirus threatens to topple the already struggling nation. Facing yet another year of violent civil war that has devastated the country, it is now dealing with a global pandemic whilst being almost completely abandoned by the international community. The situation is bleak and the pandemic itself has revealed serious problems within the political realm that have contributed to the prolonged suffering of the Yemeni people. As Yemen finds itself teetering towards a famine on a scale not seen in 40 years, the next steps of the international community are crucial in deciding the outcome of this humanitarian catastrophe.

In this June 2020 article published by The Meridian, the context of the Yemeni crisis is thoroughly explained. In brief, the situation in Yemen has been unsettling for years. Following the Arab Springs uprising in 2011, a failed political transition meant that the Houthi movement, considered anti-government Iran-backed Shia rebels, took control of large areas in the north. Since then, the Houthis have taken over the capital city ‘Sanaa’ in 2014, causing the internationally recognized Yemeni government to flee into exile. They have continued to operate in areas in the South, naming ‘Aden’ the temporary capital.

A multinational coalition led by Saudi Arabia (notably receiving military support from the UK and US) continues to use its efforts to remove the Houthis and reinstate the government. This has led to long-term civil unrest in conflict zones between the Houthis and Yemeni government forces, resorting to gunfights, airstrikes, bombings, and blockades in their war-efforts. However, the corruption, violence and abuse of human rights of those in charge have left many civilians victim to poor health, disease, malnutrition and death. It is not surprising then, that Yemenis have gotten used to life in a war-ridden country, and it is the only life many children know. And as coronavirus began to make its way across the globe, it became apparent that the virus, both directly and indirectly, would cause even more devastation in Yemen. 

Last week, BBC Two’s documentary “Yemen: Coronavirus in a War Zone” aired on UK television featuring BBC Arabic’s presenter Nawal al Maghagi as she exposes the extraordinary situation during the coronavirus outbreak whilst civil unrest continues. In her investigation on Yemen’s health system, already badly damaged by war, Nawal al Maghagi shows us the grim reality of coronavirus in its early stages of infection. The documentary begins by panning across a bustling street market in North Yemen, over men and children wearing tattered clothes and makeshift stalls held up by rags and cement blocks, with no social distancing in sight.

An interview with the men working in the stalls, despite the health crisis going on, reveals that continuing to work is essential to make ends meet and afford staple goods like bread. They are completely unscathed by the trigger word “coronavirus”. Later on, their lack of concern is revealed to be the product of a lack of information concerning the severity of the situation, which was being withheld by Houthi officials. For a long time, the escalation of cases was clearly not reflected in press conferences, daily briefings or statistics. The lack of transparency quickly proved deadly as Yemenis, many of working age, continued to die from a virus they knew little about. Whilst hospitals and cemeteries began to fill up, funds began to dry out. And the tightening of Saudi-led blockades in order to restrict arms trades had a knock-on effect that meant limited supplies of medicine, food and fuel. Hospitals with emergency wards overwhelmed with malnourished children were taking in covid patients with no supplies to help them.

Consequently, the WHO stopped paying doctors’ salaries, as a result, the majority of doctors stopped coming to work.

As coronavirus began to spread rapidly across the globe, many countries began to withdraw foreign aid in an attempt to fight their own battles with the virus. Consequently, the WHO stopped paying doctors’ salaries, as a result, the majority of doctors stopped coming to work. In response to the evident mismanagement of the initial stages, the BBC documentary raises questions about the corrupt nature of the Houthi government. In recent years, the Houthi group has been heavily criticized for collecting state revenue meant to pay salaries and fund basic services and, instead diverting large majorities of it towards funding their war effort. However, whilst the de facto government remains in denial, this only means more suffering for Yemeni civilians now facing yet another crisis.

The situation in the south was not too dissimilar. With the Yemeni government in exile, many civil servants were left to run the country, without effective administration. Many hospitals in the south shut down, and only one in the capital was left open. But, with no sufficient medical supplies, no ventilators, no protective equipment and few oxygen cylinders there was little help they could provide. Bed and floor space filled up almost immediately and, like hospitals in the north, staff were unpaid and so there were few left to treat patients. At this stage in April, the coronavirus epidemic had spiralled out of control with cemeteries being filled up within a short matter of weeks. As the virus continued to spread, the administration failed to respond effectively, and evidence of corruption began to show.

The government in exile had allocated $3 million to deal with covid and pay for doctors’ salaries, however, $200,000 of that went to the Governor of Aden who withheld the money. And whilst Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had been sent into one hospital to help with staff and medical equipment, infighting between officials, and rivalry with foreign health workers resulted in their early departure. The final minutes of the documentary are telling in showing that, in spite of a global pandemic, the civil unrest, airstrikes and bombs continue to occur, and civilians are still victims of it all.

A recent UN assessment revealed that those in the “emergency phase” of food security could increase from 3.5 million to 5 million by June 2021 and 30 million alone will experience “worsening levels of hunger” by mid-2021.

Yemenis have suffered great hardships that are unimaginable to most who live in Western democratic nations like the UK or US. The same nations that funded their governments through military trade and billion-dollar arms deals whilst cutting foreign aid to international organizations like the UN or WHO that help those vulnerable in Yemen. Now, projects that help malnourished and displaced children or those who have been displaced have now been severely underfunded or entirely cut due to insufficient funds.

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly affected aid efforts by NGOs, as their intended budget for Yemen in 2020 was halved due to the extraordinary circumstances last year. Thousands are falling into famine and the predicted statistics reflect the dire situation. A recent UN assessment revealed that those in the “emergency phase” of food security could increase from 3.5 million to 5 million by June 2021 and 30 million alone will experience “worsening levels of hunger” by mid-2021.

In the race against wide-spread famine, the most recent policy changes in the US could be a serious deciding factor in the future of Yemen. Before leaving office, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State under President Trump, had made the executive decision to label the Houthis a terrorist group. The decision would have meant the continued tightening of blockades, limited food and medical supplies, and an exponential rise in food prices potentially forcing many into severe hunger. However, the role of newly inaugurated US President Joe Biden and his foreign policy agenda has inspired hope for many in relieving some of these predictions with his recent policies on Yemen, which have proven to be promising so far. In a recent public announcement, he made clear his commitment to help end the war in Yemen. And both the removal of Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in the next coming days and the recent decision to freeze arms sales to Saudi-Arabia are crucial steps in the right direction.

However, a lot more is required to undo the severe damage already done. On the international stage, it requires countries, like the UK, to reassess their relations with the Saudi-led coalition, removing barriers to humanitarian assistance and restarting proactive peace talks between regional actors through NGOs. With Biden in office, significant changes are already happening, however, given the magnitude of the problem, it is difficult to say at this point whether significant recovery will take place in the not-so-distant future. The desperate situation in Yemen has been exacerbated by Covid-19 and hopes of a brighter future hang in the balance as it continues to fight a forgotten war.  It is now facing a malnutrition crisis, boarding on the lines of extreme national famine, possibly the worst in years. This is whilst dealing with the aftermath of coronavirus and its huge impact on foreign aid, essential for providing access to basic needs to Yemeni people.

The two governments running Yemen, one de facto and one de jure, are both guilty of corruption, violence and human rights abuses, and the mismanagement of coronavirus compounds and confirms this. For Yemen, there are big challenges ahead, and, for better or for worse, the international community has a big role to play in its recovery as a nation. Perhaps given the same treatment and importance as the rush to find a coronavirus vaccine in 2020, one day Yemen will find the cure to the famine, violence and war that continues to devastate the country and its people.