COVID-19 hampers humanitarian assistance in Yemen


By Jordan Teague

Yemen has been in crisis since its brutal civil war began in 2015. The country’s people have spent years living in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Eighty percent of the population relies on humanitarian assistance to survive. One major reason is displacement—Oxfam reports that every hour of the past five years, more than 90 people have been forced to flee their homes. At this point, nearly 4 million people are displaced within their country. More than 100 additional people fall into hunger every hour, and more than 50 suspected cholera cases are reported.

The war plus the economic policies of the Yemeni government have put Yemen at risk of famine repeatedly. Nearly 20 million Yemenis are food insecure and can rarely afford to eat nutritious foods. The rate of child malnutrition is one of the highest in the world, with 3.2 million women and children acutely malnourished.

Yemen’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was on April 10. The coronavirus is particularly dangerous in fragile contexts—in Yemen, only half of the country’s health centers are functional. The United Nations warned that the virus is likely spreading undetected, and a cluster of cases in the city of Aden confirms this.

Despite the desperate situation of so many people in Yemen, humanitarian relief workers continually encounter obstacles to reaching people in need. For example, the Houthi government, which controls the northern part of the country, has imposed restrictions on humanitarian assistance, such as taxes and delays in granting travel permits, that have delayed the delivery of needed assistance. In March 2020, the U.S. government responded by suspending more than 85 percent of its funding to humanitarian programs in the region.

But now is not the time to suspend aid to Yemen. According to the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mark Lowcock, funding for nutrition and healthcare programs is essential to more than 2 million severely malnourished children who would not receive treatment, including treatment for deadly infections, without it. An additional 1 million people would not receive critical hygiene supplies to protect them from COVID-19. The war has left many of Yemen’s people with no choice but to rely on assistance from outside donors, such as the United Nations and the United States, to help meet their most basic needs.

The Yemeni people are not the only ones facing the pandemic in the midst of continuing conflict and other fragile situations. Sources indicate that 1.8 billion people – nearly a quarter of the world’s population – live in fragile contexts, including more than 513 million people living in extreme poverty. Refugees – especially those living in inhospitable countries, those from politically unstable nations, and people who have lived through armed conflict–are all especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Many people in higher-income countries are relying on their governments to enable them to meet their basic needs, and people living in fragile contexts do not have such a safety net.

There is much that can be done, however. First, the U.N. Secretary-General has called for “an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.” A ceasefire would allow humanitarian access to populations in need and would stop the destruction of vital health infrastructure. Second, more aid is needed to help meet humanitarian needs. The United Nations has released an appeal asking for $6.7 billion for a global response and $2.4 billion for assistance to Yemen. All people are at risk if exposed to COVID-19, but we must be sure not to overlook low-income people trapped in situations that make them especially vulnerable.

Jordan Teague is senior international policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

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