Covid-19 reaches Yemen

Summary: Yemen is a country torn by war, debilitated by disease and constantly threatened by famine. Now it is being hit by the coronavirus.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, published by Saqi Books, is a seminal study of the conflict and what lies behind it.

In the week when Yemenis should be celebrating 30 years of a united state, the country is more fragmented than ever, with a multiplicity of armed conflicts in addition to the worsening disaster of Covid-19. In the far north, fighting between the Houthis and government forces continues, a complex local conflict is currently under ‘tribal mediation’ in al Baydha and the ‘usual’ low level fighting continues in the Red Sea coastal region of Tihama. The Saudi ‘unilateral’ ceasefire, now in its sixth week is characterised by an increase in air strikes: during its first five weeks, the coalition launched 145 air raids with 577 individual strikes. In Hodeida the work of the UNMHA has effectively come to a standstill after the government withdrew following the death of one of its monitors, shot in March by a Houthi sniper.

Confrontation (see earlier postings on the southern question) between the STC’s forces and those of the coalition-supported Hadi government has now turned into major fighting in Abyan with Saudi Arabia persisting in its efforts to restore some kind of ceasefire.  Southern Transitional Council (STC) leader Aydaroos al Zubeidi arrived in Riyadh on the 19th. Meanwhile, in a very distressing move, his second in command, Hani bin Breik, a notorious Salafi, has issued a fatwa encouraging fighters to kill all government supporters, a fatwa reminiscent of that issued in the 1994 civil war against all southerners by a northern fundamentalist leader, which is still widely remembered with anxiety. Moreover most STC- aligned fighters are from Lahej, Yafi’ and western Abyan while government troops are from the Abyan midlands and Shabwa. The parallel with the 1986 civil war is frightening and where is the united southern state the STC claims to rule? Imitating Houthi propaganda language and procedures appears to be the model for the STC which describes government forces as mercenaries, terrorists and Daesh, (while its own forces include some ‘former’ members of al Qaeda), and installs ‘supervisors’ in local administrations in Aden.

Meanwhile, the UN Special Envoy’s extraordinary April announcement of an imminent political agreement has been replaced by a dose of realism. In the May UNSC meeting the envoy, Martin Griffiths, while expressing ‘hope rather than reporting success’ listed a comprehensive series of failures on all fronts: the south, the lack of prisoner exchanges despite the February Amman agreement, the interruption of the activities of UNMHA (charged with implementing the Hudaydah agreement) and more.

In Yemen, Covid-19, long ignored or perceived as a remote problem, is now the centre of national attention and beginning to draw international concern. The virus has become the focus for competing and conflicting approaches from the various ‘administrations’ of the country: the Houthis and local authorities initially established inadequate and unsanitary quarantine areas in various sites that, rather than being protective, have become disease breeding grounds. These uncoordinated and inappropriate responses are accelerating the spread of the epidemic which has now reached 10 governorates.

The pandemic arrives in a country where almost everyone is vulnerable, the vast majority of the population is below the poverty line and already weakened by years of malnutrition; more than half need food assistance, with 2 million children suffering from malnutrition. Three million people have been displaced. Floods and drought have destroyed people’s resilience, and incomes have collapsed. In addition to the coronavirus, dengue, malaria, chikungunya fever and other diseases remain at epidemic level while cholera this year had affected ‘only’ 100,000 people by the end April. The UN also predicts a world wide famine as a side effect of the pandemic with reduced food production, transport problems, lower aid allocations, and increased prices. In Yemen and east Africa, the plague of locusts is a further aggravating factor.

The country’s previously inadequate medical services have collapsed: half (2800) of its medical facilities are still open but only partially operating. No one has any idea of the extent of the Covid-19 problem as only 920 tests have been carried out in a population of close to 30 million. According to the UN, it needs US$ 180 million to address this epidemic but it only has US$ 28 million. The country has 18 Covid isolation units, 520 intensive care beds, 127 ventilators, and 230 000 PPE ‘items.’ Although claiming 333 health rapid response teams, i.e one per district, earlier data indicated that many of these were cholera teams which have been transformed into Covid-19 units.

The official death toll on 20 May is only 28 with 167 cases, but clearly this in no way reflects the reality of the situation. Local authorities describe an ‘infested’ Aden city where hundreds of people have died in the past two weeks from various ‘unknown’ diseases, with symptoms similar to those of Covid-19. Hospitals have refused to accept patients and even closed down. In Houthi controlled areas, things are different but no better: the number of cases is not released, people suspected of having the disease are arrested at gunpoint, xenophobia is endangering refugees and other strangers. Social and other media are disseminating misinformation, fear, and violence, including all kinds of expensive fake cures.  Friends have helped patients escape from hospitals at gunpoint thus spreading the disease further.

The vast majority of Yemenis have no confidence whatever in official statements coming from any of the entities claiming authority. In such an environment fear spreads prejudice and persecution while ignorance encourages wild rumours about risks and transmission mechanisms. New horror stories emerge daily.

Given the world’s pandemic-induced deep economic recession, the UN has rescheduled its now virtual pledging conference for humanitarian aid for Yemen to 2 June; it will be hosted by Saudi Arabia, the leader of the military coalition. With only US$500 million paid up as of 20 May, almost half way through the year, the likelihood of pledges approaching the US$ 3.4 billion required for 2020 is low, and that of pledges being translated into actual funding even lower.

So, Yemenis continue their intimate involvement with three of the horsemen of the apocalypse: starvation, war and pestilence. This at a time when they could be celebrating 30 years of unity and preparing for Eid al Fitr.

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