Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Yemen was already described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. With hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in camps, Yemen provides the ideal conditions for the virus to spread. The UN warned in April 2020 that Covid-19: “could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries.”
This Insight looks at the weakness of statistics on Covid-19 cases, responses from President Hadi’s UN-backed Government and that of Houthi rebels and the impact of falling aid funding on the country’s healthcare system.
No-one knows how many cases there are
In June 2020 the official number of Covid-19 cases in Yemen was just over a thousand, with 288 deaths. These were cases recorded only in UN-backed Government-controlled areas, mainly in the east of the country.
Yemen conflict and control areas
The Houthi rebels (officially known as Ansar Allah), control the north and centre of the country. They have admitted to only a few cases of Covid-19, while anecdotal reports suggest that there are far more.
In April 2020 the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, based in the southern city of Aden, announced “self-government” for part of the south. They too are reportedly downplaying the pandemic. An excess deaths calculation in Aden, covered by the New York Times, suggests that official Covid-19 case figures were “a vast undercount”.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates there are a million infections in Yemen already. Provisional results from their study predict that without effective action to mitigate the pandemic Yemen could see as many as 11 million cases of Covid-19 and 85,000 deaths in a ‘worst-case scenario’. Citing the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study, on 18 June the UK Government called for “drastic action”.
Restrictions on movement
Across Yemen, the authorities are too weak to control mass gatherings and movement around the country effectively. Both the Hadi Government and the Houthi authorities announced international flight bans on 14 March, as well as restrictions on entry to the country by road.
When announcing the ‘national’ flight ban, the Hadi Government only controlled Aden, Sayoun and Mukalla airports, while the Houthis controlled most other large urban centres. The fact that airports and ports have in any case been blockaded by Saudi Arabia further complicates the problem. There have been exceptions for some humanitarian flights, but aid agencies say that access remains a serious problem.
Markets have been closed, piecemeal curfews have been imposed and the authorities have urged physical distancing. But these moves have been undermined by Yemenis’ distrust of the authorities after decades of unreliable official information. Just as importantly, social and economic life in Yemen relies on face-to-face interaction.
The money is running out
The conference for aid donors to Yemen at the beginning of June saw donors pledge $1.35 billion, when the UN’s minimum requirement was $2.4 billion. The 2020 total was a sharp fall from the $2.6 billion pledged last year. The UK pledged $196 million this year, the third highest after Saudi Arabia and the US.
UN officials warned that UN-supported medical services would be cut, just as the pandemic appeared to be surging in Yemen. UNICEF warned that the number of malnourished children in Yemen could rise by 20% to 2.4 million by the end of 2020, because of the shortfall.
Broken health services
The healthcare system was already “broken” before the pandemic, struggling to deal with casualties of violence, malnutrition, and outbreaks of cholera and mosquito-borne chikugunya and dengue viruses.
Many healthcare staff have not been paid for years and the UN, which was paying some salaries, had to stop because of the donor funding shortfall. Many Yemenis are also reported to be avoiding hospitals for fear of catching the virus. Even so, health workers say they have to turn patients away for lack of facilities.
Following the fundraising conference, Yemen’s UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Lise Grande, told CNN:
We are a billion short of our minimum target. So in the time of Covid what this means is that we’re going to see approximately half of the hospitals which we are currently supporting in the country closed down — and that’s going to be happening in just the next few weeks.
The conflict continues
At the root of Yemen’s problems is persistent violence. The present, high level conflict started in 2015, would last only a few months according to the Saudi-led coalition. But it has raged constantly since then, with the tempo increasing in 2020.
When UN Secretary General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire to deal with the pandemic, Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral ceasefire. Reports suggest, however, that the ceasefire has not been respected.
As long as there is no political resolution to the war, an effective response to the pandemic is impossible, and Yemen teeters ever closer to unimaginable suffering.
Coronavirus in developing countries: mapping national policy responses, House of Commons Library.
Coronavirus: Conflict zones and refugees in the Middle East, House of Commons Library.
UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia: Q&A, House of Commons Library, July 2019.
Yemen’s fragile peace process, House of Commons Library, March 2019.
About the author: Ben Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.