United World Project


Yemen on its knees amid war, poverty and Covid-19

16 June 2020   |   , Coronavirus,
By Bruno Cantamessa

The already war-torn country has faced the arrival of Covid-19, which has made its first victims and is spreading without control. The complex political and military situation does not bode well. And there is the risk of an environmental catastrophe.

In the last few days, direct reports about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have been published on the Médecins sans Frontières – Doctors without borders website. The international organisation, which operates in 72 countries across the globe, has been active in Yemen for over thirty years, and has been continuously present in the country since 2007. As could be foreseen – and feared –, the pandemic is spreading around a country already ravaged by war, hunger and epidemics of cholera, diphtheria and dengue. The MSF centre is located on the outskirts of Aden, inside an old renovated oncological hospital, and it is the only medical facility dedicated to the treatment of Covid-19.

“What we are witnessing at our centre – says coordinator Caroline Seguin – is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of infected people and people who are dying in the city. Patients come to us too late to be saved, and we are aware that many more people do not come at all and are dying in their homes”.

The courtyard of the Aden medical facility is filled with rows of oxygen cylinders, but it is becoming harder to maintain the stock, as 250 cylinders a day are needed to support the patients who are currently in intensive care. There is a shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers too. Masks have to be washed and reused.

According to available data, by the beginning of June Covid-19 had reached 10 out of the 22 governorates in which the country is divided, infecting nearly 500 people and killing 122. But very little information is available as to over 60% of the population living outside urban areas (18-20 million people). The level of poverty is such (the average monthly salary is USD 120) that the cost of facemasks, when they can be found, is unbearable for most people: basic masks cost 300 riyals (USD 0.50), while the price of a professional mask is 5,000 riyals (USD 8).

In the social context of the chaotic and fragmented Yemen war, the concept of social distancing is completely foreign, almost impossible to understand, if compared to bombs, hunger and the other issues that threaten people’s survival on a daily basis, in the north as well as in the south of the country.

The political situation is difficult to grasp. To over-simplify, it can be said that two interlinked conflicts are taking place at the same time. The north is under the control of the rebels, named Houthi after their founder, who are mostly pro-Iran Zaydi Shia Muslims affiliated to Ansar Allah (partisans of Allah).

The Houthis are opposed by the Saudis, who back southern Yemenites loyal to the recognised government based in Aden. In fighting the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is supported by a coalition which includes the United Aarab Emirates (UAE).

In the south, the Aden government is confronted by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), who are in turn opposed by the Saudis but backed by the EAU. Saudi Arabia and the EAU are thus allies in the north, but adversaries in the south.

The south is extremely fragmented, with some pro-Saudi areas having rejected the separatists’ declaration of autonomy, and others supporting the separatist organisation. Between and around those, there are areas controlled by members of al-Qaeda and areas close to Daesh: an inextricable chaos where everyone is at war with everyone else “in a territory scattered with micro-powers and micro-battles” (E. Ardemagni, in Dossier Ispi, Focus Mediterraneo allargato, n.13, May 2020).

To make things even more complex, the presence of internally displaced people and external migrants must also be taken into account. How many people have been internally displaced is difficult to assess, but they are estimated to be a few million. Migrants from abroad are reported to be around 138,000 (IOM), most of them Ethiopians and Somalis from the nearby Horn of Africa. But more people continue to arrive.

If we add the fact that foreign powers and weapon manufacturers are arming the conflict, we can begin to understand why the Covid-19 pandemic is but one issue, perhaps not even perceived as very serious, of the many that Yemenites have to contend with every day.

The absurdity of the situation lies in the fact that the opposing sides have realised that no one can prevail, yet no one knows how to get out of the conflict. As if that were not enough, the British Safer oil tanker, which was abandoned five years ago north of Hudaydah, could soon rupture and spill 140,000 barrels (over 22 million litres) of petroleum into the Red Sea. Will it take one of the worst environmental disasters in history to change something?