Staying home means starving to death for millions displaced in Yemen

Reuters , Thursday 21 May 2020

A man walks while clad in mask due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic along an alley at an open-air market in Yemen's capital Sanaa on May 20, 2020, as Muslims shop ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan (Photo: AFP)

When Jamil al-Saboot and his family were told by a Yemeni aid agency to self-isolate to stop the spread of coronavirus, he knew he would not heed the advice.

For the 40-year old father of ten, uprooted by civil war and living in a tent on a hillside above the southwestern city of Taiz, staying home means giving up on life.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed inequalities around the world, with low-income workers from Bogota to London this week risking their health by returning to work in countries easing lockdowns, while wealthier people stay home.

In impoverished Yemen, where the pandemic is now taking hold, millions of displaced people face an even bleaker choice: head out and risk infection or stay home and go hungry.

“We are scared of coronavirus but we can’t stay at the camp as we do not have enough food even for one day. Staying here means starving,” said Saboot, dressed in a blue shirt and a traditional headscarf.

The arrival of the pandemic in Yemen in April - 184 cases have been confirmed - added to afflictions already facing the Arab World's poorest nation including widespread hunger and a major cholera outbreak.

Five years of war have left 80% of its population of more than 24 million relying on aid and 3.6 million displaced.

Healthcare services are collapsing.

68 out of 174 patients admitted to a COVID-19 treatment centre in Aden have died, Medicins Sans Frontieres said on Thursday, warning that people perishing from the disease are much younger than in Europe: mostly men between 40 and 60 years old.

Yemen's government has advised people to only venture out for necessities but there is little authorities can do to impose restrictions in the war-torn country, said Tamuna Sabadze, Yemen country director at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

“Each day Yemenis spend at home -- each day the market is closed -- they will be losing their income,” she said. "If they don't have work they have to beg."


Saboot was working as a day-labourer breaking stones on construction sites when he was forced to flee intense fighting in Taiz between forces loyal to exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebel movement in 2017.

His relief at having found safety for his family was tempered by his struggle to find work.

Now he is worried the new coronavirus could ravage the hillside camp where he and several hundred families share toilets and live in tents built of wood and tarp.

“It's overcrowded... the disease will spread in a dramatic way,” he said.

Telecom companies are raising awareness about hygiene among Yemen's displaced through text messages.

Community volunteers advise families in camps to frequently wash their hands but it's a struggle for many who rarely have soap or sanitizer.

The IRC and other humanitarian groups are trying to establish “green zone” areas within displaced person camps to isolate high-risk groups like the elderly and pregnant women from other residents.

“That requires the community themselves to be willing - that they understand the benefits of this strategy because you cannot force people to separate the elderly from their families,” said Sabadze.

In the same Taiz camp, 30-year-old mother-of-six Nawal Ghalib gave birth recently and is worried about getting infected.

“The (visiting awareness) team told me that I’m more vulnerable to corona than anyone else,” Ghalib said.

About 6 million women and girls of childbearing age in Yemen are in need of support and more than a million pregnant and lactating women are malnourished, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Ghalib is breastfeeding and with her youngest being only months old, she can’t beg in the market. Her husband and children go instead.

“If not for begging and for generous people we would have died when we arrived in this camp,” she said.

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