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Thursday, 09 April 2020

Yemen in the age of the pandemic

An already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen threatens to get much worse as a result of Covid-19, writes Hanan Al-Hakri

Hanan Al-Hakri, Tuesday 24 Mar 2020
Workers make protective face masks at a textile factory amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sanaa (photo: Reuters)
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The UN has called for the release of all prisoners and detainees in Yemen to help address the threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths stressed last Friday that this need had become all the more pressing due to the pandemic.

 “The parties must take all measures to expedite these releases and allow people to return home safely,” he tweeted.

The TV channel RT Arabic reported that Griffiths had issued a statement on 19 March expressing alarm over the continued fighting between the Houthi rebel Ansarullah group and the forces of the internationally-recognised Yemeni government in the provinces of Jawf and Marib.

He pointed to the “the tragic toll this is taking on the lives of civilians and the prospects of peace,” adding that “at a time when the world is struggling to fight a pandemic, the focus of the parties must shift away from fighting one another to ensuring that the population will not face even graver risks.”

Abdel-Nasser Abu Bakr, head of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) prevention of infectious diseases team, told the US channel CNN on 19 March that the WHO was very concerned about the situation in Syria and Yemen.

He said the reason neither country had reported any coronavirus cases so far was not necessarily because there were none, but rather due to weak healthcare and monitoring. “Sooner or later, we expect an explosion in the number of cases,” he predicted, adding that the majority of those stricken by Covid-19 in the Middle East were linked to travel to Iran.

In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, which is under Houthi control, RT Arabic reported that the group’s Ministry of Health had said on 21 March that there were no cases of Covid-19 reported in Yemen.

The Houthi channel Al-Maseera reported that Minister of Health Taha Al-Mutawakkel had told a news conference that “we have allocated 18 hospitals across the country for training medical staff to prepare for any coronavirus outbreak”.  

He urged the WHO to “clarify or deny its claim that there will be an outbreak in Yemen” and accused coalition countries of “sending thousands to the Yemen border which they know is closed, [so] they are fully responsible for conditions there and for any coronavirus outbreak.”

Many people are complaining about the sanitary conditions in Sanaa, including broken sewage pipes and mounds of rubbish, but the site reported that the capital’s municipality had cleaned up the city on 23 March and closed more than 5,000 restaurants, cafes, bakeries and hotels, as well as utilities in the Al-Sabeen district.

Mohamed Al-Asbahhi, director of environmental health, said 300 staff from his office were engaging in street campaigns to force the owners of shops, restaurants, cafes and facilities to comply with health, safety and preventative measures.

In Taiz, a province that is sharply divided and has suffered tremendously and is rarely mentioned in the media, the local leadership met to discuss precautionary and preventative measures against Covid-19.

The province’s first deputy governor said that Governor Nabil Shamsan had given orders to prepare all measures to protect the population against Covid-19 and had asked for international assistance in this effort.

Taiz already suffers from severe shortages of medical supplies and humanitarian resources. The meeting recommended preventative measures, including cleaning up the city, cooperation with groups to support emergencies and allocating the Al-Haramein Hotel in the Al-Dabab district as a field emergency centre in the province.

As other countries take precautions against the Covid-19 pandemic, Yemen is largely continuing with business as usual. Fighting, skyrocketing prices, and almost non-existent salaries are common. In Sanaa, civil servants are paid half their salaries every two months, and in areas under government control salaries are paid every 45 days to an average of less than $70, according to sources.

The exchange rate of one US dollar is around 660 riyals in both government-controlled and Houthi-controlled areas, while the official rate is 440 riyals at the Central Bank in Aden, though this is only given to merchants and importers, while at the Sanaa Bank it is 250 riyals.

According to sources, the reason for this disparity in value is due to the country’s old and new currency. The legitimate government uses a new currency in the areas under its control, while the Houthis still use the old currency.

“When money is sent from government areas to Houthi areas, the commission is 1,000 riyals per 10,000 riyals, while the commission for money going from and to government areas is 300 riyals per 10,000 riyals,” the source explained. “This is another burden on citizens who are crushed by the conflict.”

Living conditions in the country are appalling, especially for women who have lost their breadwinners, whether husbands or sons, to the war and who now live in extreme poverty. Many have resorted to begging on the street, and those who receive a pension find the standard 3,000 riyals barely covers their needs in the absence of assistance from NGOs.

The price of a wayet (a barrel of water) ranges between 18,000 and 20,000 riyals per 5,000 litres in Taiz, which is suffering from water shortages. The price of a butane gas cylinder is 6,800 riyals, and due to shortages people now use firewood. Overall, there is severe food insecurity due to price hikes and sudden shortages of basic goods.

Security is also lacking in Yemen, and this has opened the floodgates to criminals who are victimising the weak and engaging in black market activities. This is due to the absence of any central authority: each city is divided into areas between Houthi and government jurisdiction, especially in Taiz, which is unlike any other city in Yemen.

Food supplies reach Taiz with great difficulty because the Houthis control the entrances to the city. The prices of food are exorbitant, and this created a humanitarian crisis well before the arrival of Covid-19 that can only get worse once the virus arrives.

The people of Yemen are facing a bleak future, neglected by officials and divided among themselves and too busy fighting despite the Covid-19 crisis. Each camp blames the other for the miserable conditions. While some attention is now being paid to the threat of the new coronavirus as some provinces start preparing for the worst, they have very few means to do so.

As one human rights activist put it this week, “if it wasn’t for God’s will in Yemen, all the people would already be dead.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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