The coronavirus has made landfall in Yemen. The nation at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, destitute even before it was destroyed by five years of war, now confronts a crisis that has confounded the world’s wealthiest, most peaceful countries.
Astute, sustained diplomacy by its neighbors and the world’s big powers could at least mitigate the civil carnage that the pandemic threatens to compound. At a minimum, the US needs to reverse its cruel and potentially disastrous decisions to cut off not just funding for the World Health Organization but also much of its direct aid to Yemen.
It is hard to imagine a country less prepared for a pandemic — or more vulnerable to one. By the reckoning of the the UNHCR, 80% of Yemen’s population are “in need.” More than 3.65 million Yemenis are classified as “displaced.”
The country’s heath system was never adequate and has been battered by war: Whether the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control much of Yemen, or the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states trying to rem-ove them, belligerents have repeatedly targeted hospitals and health workers. Th-e war has also led to widespread malnutrition and acute shortages of vital dr-ugs, leaving many Yemenis unprotected from pathoge-ns.
Such conditions already brought the world’s largest cholera outbreak in 2018, and there have been lesser attacks since. More than a million Yemenis have contracted the disease, and nearly 3,800 have died.
Only a herculean hum-anitarian effort will prevent the coronavirus from killi-ng more Yemenis than ch-olera. Relief agencies are already warning of the “n-ightmare” to come. But ma-ny of the countries and ag-encies that would be exp-ected to lead such a project are busy battling the pandemic at home and in plac-es where the virus arrived early. So the US could not have chosen a worse moment to cut tens of millions of dollars in health-care aid to Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, blaming the rebels for diverting food and medical supplies. More damaging still is the Trump administration’s decision to halt payments to the World Health Organization, which has been readying Yemeni hospitals for the virus’s onslaught. In both cases, civilians will bear the immediate brunt of a political crossfire that they did nothing to cause.
Although the coronavirus has prompted the UK and other developed nations to step up their aid to Yemen through the WHO, the countries that have contributed so much to its destruction — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran — must do the heavy humanitarian lifting — as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have — or at least get out of the way of such an effort.
The first step is to make sure that the two-week ceasefire declared by the Arab coalition is reciprocated by the Houthis, and extended indefinitely. Each side is accusing the other of using the lull to make military gains. Post-deal bickering is inevitable in a war, but precious time is being lost. The United Nations should ensure the fighting comes to a complete stop and broker the extension.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, having done relatively well in managing the pandemic among their own peoples, have more resources to provide Yemen. The International Monetary Fund, which has included Yemen in a list of 25 countries it will provide debt relief, can do more.
Iran, which has catastrophically failed to manage its virus crisis, has little to spare. (And you will look in vain for significant direct contributions to Yemen assistance by China and Russia.) But the regime in Tehran can use its leverage with the Houthis — who have no other patrons of consequence — to force the rebels to work with the Saudis and Emiratis.
Even the best efforts and intentions will not prevent the pandemic from cutting another swathe through Yemen. Cultural and economic factors heighten the risks. The national addiction to qat, a mildly narcotic plant, will make lock-downs hard to enforce: Even if Yemenis eschew the tradition of chewing the leaves in convivial groups, they must get fresh supplies every day. In any case, the overwhelming majority of people work in the informal sector, on daily wages, in jobs that can’t be done from home. In other words, Yemen can’t wait: The worst of worst-case scenarios is already here.