COVID-19, war and hunger: Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is becoming worse

Over 10 million are on the brink of famine; as many as 400,000 children are at the risk of dying, according to UN  

By Abhijit Mohanty
Published: Friday 10 July 2020

The violent conflict between Houthi rebels and Saudi-UAE military coalition has left over 100,000 dead in Yemen. The United Nations (UN) has called it the world’s ‘worst humanitarian crisis’— it has displaced more than 3.65 million people, created food shortage, and undermined children’s development.

The economy has collapsed and food prices quadrupled, pushing more people into food insecurity. Experts have said Yemen could witness the world’s worst famine in 100 years.

At least 24 million people (about 80 per cent of the total population) of Yemen are malnourished. About 20 million people need urgent food assistance, according to the UN. Almost 10 million of them are considered one step away from famine. Those who escaped starvation may not escape from air strike launched by the Saudi-UAE coalition.

Yeminis are trapped between the Houthi forces that control the capital Sana’a and the Saudi coalition which incessantly bombs it. This has resulted in a civil war that has over time turned into a regional power struggle.

At least 7,700 civilians had died till March 2020, mostly by Saudi-led coalition air strikes, according to the UN.

People in Yemen are victims of humans, not the nature, according to sociologists. Yemenis vehemently denounce Saudi Arabia for their pitiable situation and untold sufferings. And they have valid reasons for putting such allegation against the Saudi.

Since the beginning of the conflict, emergency food, medical and humanitarian supplies have been restricted by a partial land, sea and air blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition. This has significantly obstructed the distribution of aid and relief services in the deprived places. 

Geopolitics experts have said it is a proxy war between the Shia-ruled Saudi Arabia and Sunni-ruled Iran. People here feel abandoned and desperately ask why the world has allowed them to suffer. The world may have forgotten the war in Yemen, but the Yeminis believe the war has been largely ignored.

Deplorable condition of children

Over 10 million people are on the brink of catastrophic famine in the conflict-torn nation. As many as 400,000 children are at risk of dying, according to the UN.

About 10 children die every day in Yemen from preventable diseases caused by hunger. According to non-profit Save the Children, about 85,000 children under the age of five may have died of starvation or disease between April 2015 and October 2018.

Such deaths are hardly reported. The situation is abysmal in remote places where children lives are endangered by the effects of malnutrition due to acute food shortage.

“Children who die of hunger suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop,” said, Tamer Kirolos, country director, Save the Children.

“Their immune systems are so weak they are more prone to infections,” he said.

The education system has virtually collapsed; schools are closed for students and are often used for military camps and shelters for refugees. About two million Yemini children have dropped out of school since 2015.

Thousands of drop-out boys within the age group of 10-12 years have been recruited to fight with the rebel groups. In some areas, more than half of the girls are married before the age of 15.

Covid-19: A looming peril

“The global spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has sparked the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” said David Beasley, executive director, World Food Programme. Yemen is not an exception.

COVID-19 has aggravated the condition as cases have been on the rise on a daily basis. The virus is compounding the effects of war.

The five years of bloody conflict has devastated the country, leaving millions of people without access to even basic healthcare, portable water and sanitation — critical for preventing the virus from spreading.

It should be noted that before the first cases of coronavirus were reported, Yemen was already struggling to cope with certain contagious diseases such as malaria, dengue and cholera.

Local health experts said over 70 per cent of the country’s total population has weak immune system, which means that those suffering from chronic illness could contract COVID-19 more easily. 

At least half of Yemen could be infected with the coronavirus and become the worst manifestation of the virus because of the country’s depleted healthcare system, the World Health Organisation has predicted.

Half of the hospitals are not fully functional, with less than 1,000 ventilators and intensive care unit beds across the country.

According to data compiled by the International Rescue Committee, Yemen has one of the world’s lowest testing rates — 31 tests per million citizens. So far the country has reported over 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 288 deaths. But the number is touted to be higher in areas controlled by Houthis in the north.

The true scale of the outbreak has been impossible to ascertain, according to health experts. It would be a challenging task to prevent COVID-19 without accurately knowing who has been infected with the virus.

Yemen may be a war zone, but it is still a stopover for migrants smuggled from the horn of Africa on their way to European countries. Local health workers consider these migrants as suspected carriers of the coronavirus — an impending hazard for a fragile country.

Inadequate relief

The UN has warned that international aid agencies are losing the fight against famine in Yemen. Qu Dongyu, director general, Food and Agriculture Organisation, said, “The number of acutely food-insecure people in Yemen is expected to exceed 17 million.” The humanitarian operation assists more than 10 million people every month.

However, without additional funding, life-saving programmes will soon be forced to reduce or even close in what is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to UN, more than 30 of its 41 programmes in the country could close in weeks without funding.

It is unthinkable to imagine a famine and starvation of such an unprecedented scale in Yemen in the 21st century. We have seen such unparalleled famines in Ethiopia, Somalia, India and parts of former Soviet Union. All of these were unacceptable.

What is happening in Yemen today is a big shame for all international and bilateral agencies. Apparently, the world has turned as a mute spectator and the mainstream media’s headline hardly cover the crisis in Yemen. Nonetheless, we still have time to act responsibly.  

What next?

In order to mitigate the humanitarian crisis, it is imperative to ensure safe and unrestrained humanitarian access to everyone everywhere. “There is a need for stronger humanitarian diplomacy and aid convoys to reach people with assistance,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general, Norweigh Refugee Council.

“Most importantly, there should be accountability for attacks on protected sites,” he said. Dongyu recommended that “coherent actions are needed among humanitarian, development and peace actors to address the root cause of acute food insecurity”.

Children need special attention in this extraordinary crisis. They have been killed and injured by the ongoing war and deprived of the most basic rights.

Kirolos said, “We urgently need to get high-nutrient foods to the most vulnerable children in Yemen, many of whom are truly on the brink. Just $60 can feed a family of seven for a whole month.”  

The United Nations International Children’s Fund has said it needs around half-a-billion dollars to save children in the country. Unless $54.5 million is received by the end of August, about 23,500 children with severe acute malnutrition will be at risk of dying.

In the absence of timely financial support, millions more will be deprived from accessing essential nutritional and vitamin supplements, or immunisation against the deadly diseases, it warned. 

International donors raised $1.35 billion for Yemen at a conference on June 2. However, the said amount was well below a $2.4 billion fundraising target needed to prevent severe cutbacks in the UN’s aid operation in the country.

Rupert Colville, UN human rights spokesperson said in a briefing in Geneva, “Now, more than ever, the country needs the outside world’s help. But it is not really getting it.”

The war in Yemen should end soon. Peace is the only solution to restore stability and revive economy in the country. We cannot afford to create another Syria.

Abhijit Mohanty is a development practitioner and a freelance journalist based in New Delhi

Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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