Women watch as a nurse attends to their relative who is being treated at an intensive care unit of a hospital for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Sanaa, Yemen. Picture: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Women watch as a nurse attends to their relative who is being treated at an intensive care unit of a hospital for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Sanaa, Yemen. Picture: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Add Covid-19 to a nation ravaged by endless conflict and you have an unprecedented catastrophe

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 3, 2020

Share this article:

Pretoria - The world is facing a calamity in terms of Covid-19, but few places are so grim that there are dead bodies lying in the streets, and people dying in their homes. 

But this is what you can expect to find in Yemen - one of the poorest countries in the world, which has been the epicentre of a brutal civil conflict fuelled by big powers and their military campaigns.

Millions of Yemenis have been on the brink of starvation for years, exacerbated by a partial land, sea and air blockade where essential food and medicine have been unable to reach the civilian population.

It has left 80% of the population reliant on aid to survive. Two million children are acutely malnourished, and the country has been struggling to cope with dengue fever, malaria and cholera.

Hospitals and clinics have been targeted and bombed well over 120 times, leaving only 50% of the country’s health facilities fully functional. A child dies in Yemen every 10 minutes from a preventable disease, and brain damage from malnutrition affects 45% of children under 5 years old.

This is the apocalyptic situation of the country lying to the south of Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world.

It is a catastrophe which the world and the media have so far effectively ignored.

At the height of the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, 7.9 million people faced starvation. The images of starving children with no flesh on their bones captured global attention and after concerts to raise awareness, aid money poured in.

But today millions of Yemeni children face starvation yet there are no concerts, no global alarm, and the UN is being forced to cut its aid operations as countries have only pledged half of what they did last year.

Then add to the mix the coronavirus and you have an unprecedented catastrophe.

Three years before the emergence of Covid-19, Yemen was already experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the UN declared the country the most needy place on earth.

Given the civilian population’s drastically weakened immune systems, the coronavirus could spread faster and with deadlier consequences than anywhere else in the world. Without a central government in charge, the pandemic is harder to contain.

The true extent of the coronavirus crisis is unknown as it is impossible to do meaningful testing. The UN says that testing kits are in short supply and there has been a lack of transparency from the rebels and the government in reporting numbers of those who have been tested.

It is estimated that Yemen may have 1 million Covid-positive cases - three times that of the UK - and it has a population less than half the size of Britain’s.

It is also estimated that 25% of those with Covid-19 in Yemen die, which is five times the current global average.

Owing to a drastic lack of personal protective equipment, a significant number of health workers in Yemen have already died.

With a population of 28.5 million, Yemen only has 500 ventilators, compared with South Africa, with a population of 57.7 million, which is hoping to have produced 20 000 ventilators by August.

Poor access to water and sanitation has also spurred the spread of the virus. Approximately 10 million children do not even have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.

The schools in Yemen are closed, which may be a good preventive measure in terms of the virus, but in the context of a civil war where 8 million children are no longer in classrooms, it puts many at great risk of being forcibly recruited as child soldiers.

Child soldiers are already a normal phenomenon in Yemen’s civil war. The UN has recorded 3500 children as young as 10 years old having been recruited into the armed forces and armed groups.

Given the country’s economic ­collapse, children may also be forced into child labour and trafficked.

Five years of conflict have forced more than 3.6 million Yemenis to flee their homes, which also means with such mass displacement families are in an extremely vulnerable position, without their usual support networks or amenities.

Unicef has appealed for US$461 million for its humanitarian response in Yemen, and an additional $53m to counter the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid appeal is only 10% funded and the humanitarian appeal is only 39% funded.

Doctors Without Borders has confirmed that dozens of people are dying in Aden every day, and they say that what they are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.

UN Humanitarian Chief, Mark Lowcock, says that it feels like the end - Yemenis feel like the world has forgotten them - which it clearly has.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.

Share this article:

Related Articles