Yemen bracing for COVID-19 pandemic

Naaser Mohamed Fakih watches as his granddaughter fills a jerry can with water from a solar- and wind-powered desalination unit that he manages, built with help from Oxfam in the Khor Omeira region on Yemen’s west coast. Providing clean water in areas that otherwise might not have it is a crucial means to avoid an outbreak of diseases like cholera. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

A country already devastated by war, and enduring an on-going cholera crisis, is facing a new challenge.

With a recent upsurge in fighting in Yemen, the forthcoming rainy season and tightening of borders due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no end in sight to the daily toll of death, disease and displacement five years after the conflict escalated.

One civilian has died every three and a half hours in fighting since the Saudi coalition entered the war in support of the internationally recognized government against the Houthis. Many more in that time have succumbed to disease and hunger.

For every hour of the last five years,

  • more than 90 people have had to flee their homes,
  • more than 50 suspected cases of cholera have been reported and,
  • the number of people going hungry has increased by more than 100

Public health challenges

Coronavirus poses a fresh challenge to Yemen. Flights into and out of the country have been stopped, restricting movement for some aid workers responding to the humanitarian crisis. Only 50 percent of health centers in Yemen are functioning, and even those that are open are facing severe shortages of medicines, equipment, and staff. Around 17 million people – more than half the population – have no access to clean water. Nearly four million have been displaced by the conflict, and are living in cramped quarters where it will be nearly impossible to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Cholera is an on-going crisis in Yemen, and the forthcoming rainy season could cause another surge in the disease. Yemen has already recorded the two largest numbers of suspected cases in any country in a single year, in 2017 and 2019.

“While the international community is rightly concerned about protecting its own citizens from coronavirus, it has a responsibility to the people of Yemen,” says Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director Muhsin Siddiquey. “After five years of death, disease and displacement and in the face of a rising threat from a global pandemic, Yemenis desperately need all warring parties to agree to an immediate countrywide ceasefire and return to negotiations to achieving a lasting peace.”

Between March 26, 2015 and March 7, 2020, an estimated 12,366 civilians were killed in the fighting. After a decrease in hostilities towards the end of 2019, fighting escalated again across Sana’a, Marib, and Aljawf governorates in January and February this year.

The UN estimates 35,000 civilians have had to flee their homes as a result. They join the more than four million Yemenis who had already had to move to makeshift camps or other communities across the country since 2015. That means that more than 90 people have had to flee their homes for every hour of the conflict over the last five years.

In response to the COVID-19 threat in Yemen, Oxfam is planning to respond by training community health volunteers to raise awareness of the virus and how to prevent it.

Cholera still a threat

Since the start of a cholera outbreak in 2017, there have been more than 2.3 million suspected cases of the disease – and more than 50 per hour over the last five years. With rainy season due to start in April, cases are likely to surge again. Oxfam’s projection is that there could be just over a million cases in 2020.

The number of people going hungry has increased by 4.7 million in the last five years – that’s more than 100 people every hour.

“The world knows how to prevent and treat cholera and hunger – these are not new diseases,” Siddiquey says. “Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is entirely man made, caused not only by the warring parties but also by those who choose to add fuel to the fire by arming them.”

Oxfam has been calling on the UN and the US government to urge all sides in the war to negotiate an end to the conflict, but peace has remained elusive. “For five years, the US government has meekly called for peace while enthusiastically supplying the weapons of war,” says Scott Paul, Oxfam’s humanitarian policy lead in Washington, DC. “Today it’s more important than ever for the US to focus on resolving the conflict and getting humanitarian assistance to the people who need it most.”

Oxfam is also calling on the Trump administration and the US Agency for International Development to delay a recently announced plan to suspend its funding in Yemen, to account for the urgent threat of coronavirus.

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