The UK and US continue to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen – a humanitarian crisis which has severely destabilised the country’s ability to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic.
As countries look to ease their lockdowns, COVID-19 is spreading through Yemen like wildfire amidst its collapsed healthcare system, what the United Nations previously called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and vast uncertainty due to warring sides covering up the virus’ spread. Meanwhile, the international community continues to fail to address the country’s turmoil.
The war in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia started in March 2015 – armed with billions of pounds worth of British and American military equipment and launched under the pretext of defeating the Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ insurgency and restoring the internationally recognised government. It has laid waste to Yemen’s infrastructure, often a deliberate war tactic, significantly destabilising the country.
On 27 April, Yemen confirmed its first case of COVID-19, raising concerns for a country already suffering huge epidemics including the worst Cholera outbreak in recorded history, along with millions of people suffering from malnutrition and famine. Around half of the country’s healthcare facilities are not functioning and it has very limited intensive care unit beds, equipment and medical ventilators. More than 80% of Yemenis relied on external aid to survive before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
Though official statistics show 255 cases of the virus in Yemen as of 28 May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated in April that there is a “very real probability” that COVID-19 is circulating undetected within communities. Activists in Yemen have told Byline Times that tens of thousands may have the virus, while WHO modelling suggests that half the population could become infected and around 40,000 people could die.
The southern port city of Aden faces an alarming number of unofficial cases, with at least several dozens of daily COVID-19 related deaths in that city alone. Graveyards are now overflowing beyond normal capacity.
Mohammed Ebeid, a gravedigger in Aden, reports that there has been five times the normal traffic at the cemetery he works at, with 51 burials. “This is something strange, we’ve never seen it before,” he said.
“Coronavirus has spread rapidly as a result of extreme poverty and limited medicines. Tests are up to $100 and very expensive for ordinary Yemenis,” Zainab, a doctor in Aden, told Byline Times. “This is a result of the war, salary cuts and deterioration of the economy. There is also no coordination between the authorities. Now entire families are dying. Many of our best doctors are dying, due to lack of equipment, and it is hard to know medical workers have the virus too. Hospitals and treatment centres are becoming overwhelmed. Deaths have not been counted in homes either” – suggesting that even these unofficial deaths are the tip of the iceberg.
Claire HaDuong, Doctors Without Borders’ head of mission in Yemen, told Byline Times that “for many Yemenis, it is simply not an option to stay at home – they have to work each day to bring in the money necessary for them and their families to survive”.
“This high mortality rate in Aden is equivalent to those we see in the intensive care units in hospitals in the US and Europe,” she added.
In Yemen’s north, ongoing fighting between the Houthis and Saudi-backed forces in the Marib governorate drifts closer towards overcrowded and poorly equipped displacement camps, where around 750,000 domestic refugees are hosted, heightening their COVID-19 risks, Human Rights Watch reported.
The Houthis, another accomplice in Yemenis’ humanitarian suffering, are accused of covering up the full scale of the crisis. Such knowledge would restrict their recruitment and mobilisation capabilities in the war.
Fuad Rajeh, a Yemeni researcher, told Byline Times that the Houthis have even reportedly detained doctors, fearing that they may talk to the media and reveal the extent of the virus. He also reported that 2,600 cases and 360 deaths were seen in the Houthi-controlled capital Sana’a as of 24 May.
Cutting humanitarian aid to Yemen would have been devastating even before the Coronavirus, yet now there are increasing shortages of aid funding. International donors have not met their 2020 funding promises, delivering just 27% of Yemen’s humanitarian fund.
The US slashed $73 million in March, over criticisms of Houthi smuggling of international aid. But pressure led to Donald Trump’s administration announcing earlier in May that it would provide $225 million in emergency aid for Yemen. This still barely meets Yemen’s humanitarian requirements.
“If we do not get the money coming in, the programmes that are keeping people alive and are very much essential to fight back against COVID-19, will have to close,” warned Jens Larke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “And then, the world will have to witness what happens in a country without a functioning health system battling COVID-19, and I do not think that one will see that.”
“We appeal to international organisations and countries to save Yemen and provide medical devices and equipment, resuscitation equipment, laboratory devices, humanitarian relief, preventive and medicinal means,” said Dr. Zainab.
The UK is neglecting its role as Yemen’s pen-holder in the UN Security Council to push for an effective political solution.
While peace agreements keep faltering, UK Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly recently wrote in The National that “some of Yemen’s leaders have shirked their responsibilities” in addressing the virus. But Cleverly omitted how Britain’s extensive support for the Saudi-led coalition, which its war efforts depend upon, has driven Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and inabilities to contain the Coronavirus.
It continues arming Saudi Arabia despite the UK Court of Appeal last June declaring such transactions as illegal. Boris Johnson also encouraged further UK arms sales just after Saudi Arabia bombed a Yemeni potato factory in 2016, killing 14 civilians.
US President Donald Trump is currently in talks with Saudi Arabia for further large weapons transactions, despite increasing congressional opposition, according to senator Bob Menendez.
Continued impunity for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – another leading actor in the war – delays a peace settlement and hinders Yemen’s stability amidst this crisis, as fighting continues in the country. Doctors Without Borders also highlighted that ongoing fighting sends extra people into the hospitals, further crippling hospitals’ abilities to counteract COVID-19 and other illnesses.
“Along with providing aid, Britain and the United States have to stop selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, because they are refuelling the war while Yemen deals with this horrible crisis which is spreading really fast,” Ahmad Algohbary, a Yemeni activist, told Byline Times.