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Fighting and COVID-19 intensifying in Yemen war

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Families seeking safety in Marib, including this man and his six-year-old son, have had to flee fighting multiple times. Kaff Media / Oxfam

Six years since the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition entered the war in Yemen (with US support), the conflict, a pandemic, and a fuel crisis are pushing families to the brink.

As Yemen marks six years since the international escalation of its civil war, a second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping across the country, with a 22-fold increase in recorded cases in recent weeks. The spike in COVID-19 cases comes alongside renewed fighting in Marib, which could force hundreds of thousands of people to flee to find safety.

The recent COVID-19 figures indicate a sharp rise in the number of people being admitted to healthcare facilities with severe symptoms. As COVID-19 tests are only administered to people admitted to healthcare facilities, the positivity rate indicates that that many more Yemenis are suffering from COVID-19 at home – and are unable to access or afford treatment that could save their lives.

So far no one in Yemen has been vaccinated, although the country is expecting to receive vaccines soon.

“Many people don’t go to the hospital when they have symptoms – even where treatment is available, many cannot afford medical bills,” says Oxfam’s Country Directory Muhsin Siddiquey. “With little testing, we can’t quantify the true scale of the problem, but we do know that COVID-19 is accelerating fast.”

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The arrival of the rainy season - expected in May - could see a renewed threat from cholera, which will combine with COVID-19 to further overwhelm a health system already battered by Yemen’s civil war and economic collapse. Many healthcare staff are showing up to work despite not receiving their salaries. There are just 700 ICU beds and 500 ventilators for a population of 30 million. The country has struggled with cholera since the world’s worst-recorded outbreak began five years ago with more than 2 million suspected cases.

“Yemen is at a tipping point – millions of people are already at the precipice,” Siddiquey says. “Now COVID-19, cholera, and an intensification of the conflict threatens to push them over.”

Surge in fighting

The escalation in hostilities around Marib is one of a number of worrying recent developments. Fighting has also renewed around Taiz, Hajjah, Hodeidah, and Aldhale’e, where residents have experienced airstrikes and shelling. Unrest in Aden has also interrupted some public services.

The UN estimates 1.2 million people have fled to Marib, which until recently was considered relatively safe and hosts the largest internally displaced population in Yemen. Local officials think the UN figure is an underestimate and that as many as 3 million people are displaced in the area. Since February, more than 11,000 people in Marib have been displaced again. Many families have been displaced four or five times as the frontlines of Yemen’s war have shifted.

Since 2015 Oxfam has assisted 3 million people with clean water, hygiene items like soap, cash, and assistance for small business owners and others struggling to make a living. Oxfam also helps with sanitation in areas hosting displaced people, which is essential to avoid outbreaks of diseases like cholera. In Marib, Oxfam has recently removed 120,000 liters of liquid waste from latrine pits in three different areas hosting refugees.

Oxfam staff recently met a man in Marib who says he and his family have been displaced four times. He is now worried that fighting will again force them to flee the area. Salem (not his real name) is 45, and says he and his wife and six children are now living in a small tent with no food aid and have no resources for health care and other expenses. “There is no future for us here and there aren’t any income resources to help for our basic needs. Also we aren't sure if the place is going to be stable or not. People in the camp are always afraid of military actions that could hit them anytime.”

“We all live in anxiety.”

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The UN estimates there are more than 1 million people seeking safety in and around Marib. Local officials believe the number could be as many as 3 million. Kaff Media / Oxfam

Muhsin Siddiquey says people in Marib “face a stark choice between staying put and risking their lives or fleeing into the desert where there is no water or food. Children are being killed, houses in residential districts are being hit by shelling and people being forced to flee.”

Lack of fuel and resources

The situation across northern Yemen is being further affected by the latest uptick in a cyclical fuel crisis. Following the Houthis’ diversion of revenues from the Hodeidah Central Bank and increasing control over fuel markets in northern Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government have refused to allow fuel to enter Hodeidah, the import gateway for most of Yemen. The rising cost of fuel, food, and other necessities is having a crippling impact on what families can afford to survive and reducing the availability of critical goods and services.

A small amount of diesel fuel was allowed to enter the blockaded port at Hodeidah in late March, but it is a fraction of what the country needs. Oxfam is advocating for fuel to be permitted to enter the country and to be available to all Yemenis immediately.

Despite this huge level of need, Yemen’s aid response is more than 50 percent underfunded. Earlier this month the UN held a donor pledging conference asking for $3.85 billion but received less than $1.7 billion - less than what was received in 2020 and $1 billion less than the amount pledged at the 2019 conference. Many aid programs have already been forced to scale back, leaving many without the life-saving assistance they need.

Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen, said: “Even people who escape the missiles and bullets face a daily struggle to survive in the face of disease and destitution. Yemenis have suffered for six long years – it is time for the world to say, ‘enough.’"

Salem’s son, now six years old, has known nothing but war and displacement his entire life. He says he wants to go to school and become a teacher, but in the meantime, he asks for one thing: to “go back home, and never have to leave it again.”

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