Johan Leijon | 14 May 2020
The eyes of the world have turned to the considerable challenges of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This crisis, however, is likely to amplify already existent crises of famine. Even before the outbreak of the virus, approximately 113 million people globally and over 20 million people in Yemen were affected by severe acute food insecurity according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. As of May 2020, Yemen stands on the brink of famine and has been named the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN as over 80% of its population needs humanitarian aid. While the pandemic has shifted focus away from the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is essential to remain cognizant of how the pandemic can exacerbate the country’s exceedingly vulnerable condition with its own set of contingencies.
On the 10th of April, Yemen had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Three weeks later, at the beginning of May, there are over 20 reported cases, indicating a real prospect that the virus has proliferated unnoticed. An outbreak of coronavirus is a looming threat which will have a disproportionate effect on the malnourished people of Yemen who lack access to both sanitation and clean water. The country is experiencing a scarcity of supplies, facilities and capabilities to combat a possible outbreak, and the impact of COVID-19 would be “catastrophic” according to UN humanitarian coordinator Lisa Grande.
Yemen is ravaged by a protracted civil war which has displaced and killed thousands and created famine-like conditions for its population. With pervasive poverty and after five years of war, Yemen is highly vulnerable to the pandemic due to weakened healthcare infrastructure and food supply chains. Moreover, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced on the 8th of April that it would cut its aid by half to people living in Houthi-controlled areas due to a lack of funding. The dual burden of fighting famine-like conditions in conjunction with battling COVID-19 is a struggle that will likely put a further strain on Yemen. However, on the same day as the WFP announcement, the Saudi-led coalition also announced a two-week unilateral ceasefire in an effort to contain the pandemic. At the proposed end of the ceasefire, the coalition declared a one-month extension. The pandemic itself might thus prove to be a reason for the change of trajectory for human behavior. The danger of a viral outbreak provides a ripe moment for parties in Yemen’s conflict to cease hostilities and not inflame the humanitarian crisis further. Yet, the Houthis want air and naval enforcement measures lifted and have signaled a non-acceptance of the ceasefire through continued violence and shelling diminishing hopes for a truce induced by the pandemic.
Yemen’s initial response to the coronavirus has been selective lockdown and quarantine. The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the large southern Hadhramaut governorate where a Yemeni national working at the Al-Shahr port was reportedly infected. The provincial government imposed a partial curfew and placed all employees at the port in a 14-day quarantine. Surrounding ports were not closed as they are vital to the influx of aid and commercial goods yet the adjacent governorate of Al-Mahra closed its border to Hadhramaut. Medical supplies are scarce due to de facto blockades, yet 37 isolation units have been created in vacant buildings and by repurposing health facilities. Another challenge Yemen faces in combating the virus is that of information dissemination and communication across warring factions.
COVID-19 presents a distinctive risk to Yemen as the country’s health system is severely weakened by the conflict. According to the World Bank, fewer than 50% of medical facilities are entirely operational, and 18% of the nation’s 333 districts lack doctors. Many employees in the health sector have not received salaries for the better part of two years, and immunization coverage has decreased by 30% since the eruption of armed conflict. Yemen’s scarcely functional healthcare system is also dealing with the consequences of hunger and other diseases, including a dengue fever outbreak – a disease with similar symptoms to COVID-19. A young man reportedly died of dengue fever in Mukalla according to Associated Press after being refused care by a hospital for fear that he was a carrier of the coronavirus. It should also be noted that a significant section of Yemeni people do not have access to basic sanitation in the form of soap and water or possess the privilege or information to practice social distancing and self-isolation. Yemen’s civil war has already stagnated national human development by 21 years according to a report from the UNDP, a prediction that will likely be adversely affected by a possible virus outbreak. Yemen now faces the genuine possibility of having its crisis of hunger compounded with a health emergency. The endurance of its humanitarian food supply chains and existing medical infrastructure will be tested, and the outcome will drastically affect the state of Yemen’s mass starvation and rehabilitation from a coronavirus outbreak.
The policies which have enabled and continue to drive the famine-like conditions in Yemen are systematic and range from the international arms trade, economic warfare to the manipulation of humanitarian aid. Yemen’s human-made state of mass hunger in conjunction with COVID-19 poses an elevated and seemingly unnecessary risk for the country. In the end, the question of accountability becomes crucial against the backdrop of increased mortality due to war, hunger, and now COVID-19-related deaths in Yemen. If there is any hope of ameliorating the structural violence of famine, we need to factor in actor agency as well as identify and hold perpetrators accountable. Is it the belligerents of the civil conflict who have continuously exacerbated the humanitarian crisis through blockades, checkpoints, and destruction of civilian infrastructure? Or is it the military-industrial complex which has supplied weapons and perpetuated the conflict? Perhaps accountability lies within humanitarian donor politics and the politicization of aid? These will be important questions to ask as Yemen struggles for a better future.
Johan Leijon is a master’s student at the University of Gothenburg’s Global Studies program. His MA thesis focuses on perpetrators and causes of the famine in Yemen. He is an intern in the project, “Famines as Mass-Atrocities: Reconsidering Violence, Memory and Justice in Relation to Hunger”.
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