Civil war in Yemen leaves millions at risk of famine, coronavirus outbreak adds fuel to the flame

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Yemen faces a severe humanitarian crisis. Amid ongoing conflict and the coronavirus outbreak, 24 million of 30.5 million Yemenis suffer from starvation and malnutrition. 

A civil war between Iran backed Houthi rebels and government forces rages on in Yemen. Consequently, the conflict has provoked widespread famine across the country. According to the United Nations, over two million Yemeni children are suffering from acute malnutrition. Of those children, 360,000 are at risk of dying without treatment. 

“We must act now. If we wait for famine to be declared, it will already be too late as people will already be dying,” said World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in a virtual briefing. WFP provides over 12 million Yemenis with monthly food assistance through food distribution and vouchers.

For five years, Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority has clashed with President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Backed by a Saudi-led coalition of eight, Arab, Sunni-majority countries, the U.S. and U.K. sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and provide logistical intelligence in support of the Hadi Administration. 

Even before fighting broke out, Yemen ranked as one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, with a life expectancy rate under 64. Moreover, Yemen imports 90 percent of its food. Now, port blockades by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels have left the nation without access to food, key medicines, and humanitarian supplies. Due to the shortage, it now actively puts millions at risk of starvation and malnutrition. 

One of the casualties of the conflict is Yemen’s key infrastructure. Years of war destroyed markets, schools, and hospitals across the country, leaving most people without steady income as employment opportunities decreased. As a result, Yemen’s economy contracted by over 50 percent. Moreover, the Yemeni rial depreciated severely in 2018; thus, further hindering households’ purchasing powers and pushing millions into poverty. 

Coronavirus Worsens the Blow

In the midst of Yemen’s ongoing conflict, the coronavirus pandemic hit, resulting in exacerbating the current crisis in Yemen. According to the UN, Yemen reported its first cases of coronavirus on April 10. Currently, the country has 1520 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 430 deaths. However, officials fear that these numbers are severely undercounted due to a lack of widespread testing. 

Because of the fighting, Yemen’s healthcare system is collapsing. 49 percent of its health facilities are either not functioning or partially functioning due to shortages in staff, lack of supplies, limited access, or destruction during airstrikes. Furthermore, most healthcare staff did not receive regular salaries for over two years so they fled the country. 

With the recent surge in coronavirus cases in Yemen, hospitals have been overwhelmed and healthcare workers, who lack personal protection equipment, have been dying. Soon, there will be close to few PPEs left. Now, officials fear that without proper access to healthcare, COVID-19 deaths could surpass those of the war

Debilitating ecosystem

“Water and sanitation programs that serve four million people will start closing in several weeks,” U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said in a Security Council meeting. “About five million children will go without routine vaccinations, and by August, we will close down malnutrition programs.” 

Moreover, Yemen currently suffers from malaria, dengue, and cholera outbreaks, largely due to a lack of access to clean water and sanitation. More than 17.8 million Yemenis require some kind of assistance to access such basic necessities. Also, poor living conditions due to displacement from the war means families are cramped into tight camps and shared spaces. They also drink from the same water and share bathroom facilities, all of which can quicken the spread of COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses. 

The United Nations announced that it needs 2.41 billion dollars to sustain its ongoing humanitarian aid efforts in Yemen. Without it, the UN will cut back on programs servicing four million displaced people and the millions more who are hungry. The international organization raised 1.35 billion dollars at a virtual donor conference, but that fell short of what is needed to fully fund its aid operations. As of now, 25 percent of Yemen’s confirmed COVID-19 cases have died. This five times the global average. With the U.N. struggling to receive funding for its humanitarian work in Yemen, the country will soon be incapable of controlling the pandemic. 

Sara Elroubi is based out of Queens and covers current affairs and social justice issues.

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