Covid-19: The straw that breaks Yemen’s back?

The events of the Arab Spring in 2011 provided renewed hope for the Yemeni people and many felt that a long-overdue democratic transition had finally arrived when vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was sworn in as the new president of Yemen, albeit in an uncontested election.

But hopes of a peaceful future quickly vanished into thin air. The new government had scarcely been sworn in before Yemen’s capital Sana’a was under threat from all quarters. Challenges from southern secessionists and northern Houthi insurgents threatened to overthrow the newly elected government and in September 2014, they succeeded. Insurgent forces led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi occupied the capital and coerced Hadi to accept a “unity” government. The unity, however, was merely an illusion of real collaboration. The Houthi insurgents refused to participate in parliamentary proceedings and increasingly scaled up their attacks on Hadi before placing him under house arrest. This prompted the mass resignation of the elected Hadi government in January 2015 and the subsequent dissolution of parliament. A new constitutional declaration was established by al-Houthi’s Revolutionary Committee despite an almost unanimous rejection of it by the international community.

Most people will be familiar with the political turmoil gripping the nation, but less I believe, will be aware of the deadly shadow looming over Yemen. The country currently faces the worst cholera outbreak in recorded human history with more than 2-million people already infected and 4 000 confirmed deaths. Additionally, funding from international organisations has dried up and this serves as yet another blow in the wake of a debilitating famine which has crippled the nation. In light of the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the United Nations has urgently called on countries for funding because of forced cuts in the multiple aid programmes operated by the organisation in Yemen. The UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) is one such programme. UNFPA represents the sole provider of reproductive services to more than 3-million women in Yemen and the recent funding cuts will put 2-million of those women at risk of peripartum and gynaecological emergencies. Thus, Yemen already faced an almost insurmountable challenge when a novel foe arrived.

Yemen’s first Covid-19 case was confirmed on April 10. As of July 8 there are officially 1 294 cases and the death toll stands at 346, but the real number may be much higher. Voices within the Yemeni medical community have stated that the numbers reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been vastly underestimated and information regarding the true extent of the outbreak has been suppressed by the Houthi insurgency controlling Sana’a. Claire HaDuong, head of Doctors Without Borders in the region, told Byline Times that the mortality rates in Yemen may be as high as those crippling Europe and the United States. Additionally, other journalists such as Fuad Rajeh have spoken out against the detainment of doctors by Houthi militants for attempting to expose the true nature of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But speaking out has come at a mortal cost for many. Nabil Hasan al-Quaety, an internationally recognised freelance journalist, was recently murdered for his coverage of the situation in Yemen. Four other journalists in Houthi-controlled territories have also recently been handed death sentences for reporting the situation on the ground. Suppression of information is not unique to the Houthi rebels. A report by Amnesty International has exposed the deposed Hadi-government for its own complicity in human rights violations and the frequent abuse of activists. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, these tragic cases represent the existential risk those who seek to shed light on the situation in Yemen face and seem so distant from the liberation movement which championed virtues such as freedom of expression less than a decade ago.


In an attempt to rescue the aid programmes, the UN managed to raise $1.35-billion in June, falling disappointingly short of their goal. Whereas WHO has valiantly sought to help through the provision of over 8 000 Covid-19 test kits, their contribution is miniscule compared to the 9.2-million test kits it is estimated Yemen will need to rein in the pandemic. In a press release regarding the pledging conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres took the time to emphasise the need for a ceasefire in Yemen, stating that: “Ending the war is the only way to address the health, humanitarian and human development crises in Yemen.” 

In his opening statements at the conference, humanitarian co-ordinator for the UN, Mark Lowcock, also took the opportunity to rebuke the various countries fuelling the war and subsequent funding cuts stating: “Cutting funding to one part of the country or another because you are concerned about the behaviour of those in control is tantamount to the collective punishment of the innocent and the vulnerable, people who have no say on who is in charge in the places they live.”

Unfortunately, the situation in Yemen is a recurring theme across the region. The vitality of the Arab Spring sought to usher in a future for the Yemeni people that has sadly never come to fruition. The fragile nature of revolutionary states has provided a culture medium for powerful interests all seeking to forward their own ambitions in the region. Although  the UN publicly attempts to rally support and funding for the humanitarian crisis unfolding, the powerful interests propagating the civil war that fund both the UN and forces in Yemen create an impasse that prevents any meaningful progress from being made. Whether it be the internal actors jostling for position in the country, or external role-players who have actively fuelled the civil war, the only voices not being heard are those of the Yemeni people themselves. Ultimately, we will have to wait and see whether Covid-19’s addition to the multifaceted nature of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis will finally be the straw that breaks the country’s back. For the 80% of Yemen’s population who depend on aid for their survival, it may be the case.

Cameron Joseph is an undergraduate medical student at the University of Cape Town. He has a keen interest in investigating the effects of geopolitics on healthcare across the globe. This is an edited version of an article first published by Merion West and used with kind permission.

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Cameron Joseph
Cameron Joseph is a medical student at the University of Cape Town

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