Catastrophic situation in Yemen

Tuesday 23 Jun 2020

The spread of the Covid-19 is putting even greater strain on Yemen, a country already badly affected by conflict and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, writes Khadija Elrabti

Catastrophic situation  in Yemen
Yemeni members of the medical staff treat COVID-19 patients at a quarantine center in Taez (photos: AFP)

Over the past few weeks, cries for help for Yemen, caught up in war and a humanitarian crisis, have taken the form of social media posts on the Internet as more and more people are talking about the worst crisis to have hit the country in the last 100 years.

Graphic images of people starved almost to bags of bones, with only their eyes showing signs of life, are circulating on the Internet as depictions of the lives of many in Yemen today and the result of the humanitarian crisis and collateral damage from the war.

“Yemen will be wiped off the world map” should things continue as they are is the headline on most news sites, videos and online posts from Yemen, where the damage from the war still outweighs the aid arriving.

Some 24 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid in Yemen at a time when such help is decreasing. This month’s UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Yemen has fallen short by more than $1 billion.

Even with the coronavirus now also rapidly spreading throughout the country, only three medical supply shipments arrived in Yemen on Friday in what is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries.

Programmes covering crucial sectors from healthcare, nourishment and basic amenities have been cut. The UN World Food Programme has cut the rations it issues in half, while the UN has reduced its funded health services to Yemen’s hospitals.

In an already crisis-stricken country, the global coronavirus pandemic can only put an even greater strain on the lives of all Yemenis, among them the elderly and women and children.

“The inability of the Yemeni authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country is based on events prior to its arrival. The five years of conflict in Yemen have left the country devastated, leading to a vacuum producing instability and insecurity throughout all areas of the country,” said British Yemeni researcher Mohamed Murshed.

“The insecurity does not lend confidence to the aid agencies and NGOs in carrying out their work in regions of danger, and even if conflict can be avoided Yemen’s poor infrastructure is scarcely able to deliver much-needed aid on roads planted with mines and blown-up bridges,” he said.

“All this reduces the speed of distribution of the aid and in turn increases the rate of the virus’s spread.”

But the aid is a matter of life or death for many Yemenis as they struggle to survive in the face of famine.

“The situation on the ground is now described by locals as catastrophic, and the coronavirus is spreading among a population that lacks the awareness and ability to act appropriately. Some government data suggest there are just over 900 cases of Covid-19 in Yemen. But these figures are probably unreliable, and the true numbers are much higher,” Murshed said.

Frontline healthcare workers in Yemen are vulnerable as they have to work knowing that they do not have the medical equipment needed, but still have to expose themselves to the threat of the virus and put themselves and their families in jeopardy. 

“The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other equipment makes them vulnerable and puts them at high risk. Should they contract the virus, this would only further weaken the defensive front lines in a country that is desperate for doctors rather than soldiers,” Murshed said.

“Yemen has one of the lowest rates of doctors in the world, with a World Health Organisation report stating that there are just five doctors per 10,000 people. This figure expresses the need to protect doctors and those on the frontline so that they can have a chance against the virus.”

The UN has already labelled Yemen as suffering from the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even before the first case of Covid-19 was recorded in the country.

“The already fragile healthcare system has been pushed to the brink by patients from the civil war and people suffering from diseases and infections due to the total collapse of facilities such as clean water, sewerage systems, food supplies and medication,” Murshed said.

Yemen has been caught up in a civil war for the past six years, and since the conflict started around 100,000 people have been killed or severely injured, while millions of others have been displaced from their homes.

“The absence of governance and financial resources has reduced Yemen’s healthcare system at a time when investment was crucially needed. This has also increased the number of patients, especially the vulnerable such as children, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, stretching the hospitals and healthcare system to their limit,” Murshed said.

Alongside the damage from the conflict, Yemen has also been fighting against cholera for the last four years, a horrific battle against a disease that should have been left in the 19th century.

According to the UN, Yemen has been facing the world’s worst cholera outbreak. A total of over 35,500 cholera cases was reported in the first month of 2020 alone, with this highly infectious disease wreaking havoc and leaving people fragile and barely able to move.

The rationing of medical supplies had already started before the arrival of Covid-19, making the situation even worse as supplies become scarcer.

“At this point, many Yemenis are asking themselves not when they will perish, but how. By the time you have read this article a Yemeni child could have died from a preventable disease,” Murshed commented.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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