As countries around the world face the coronavirus pandemic with fear and uncertainty, millions in the United States are grappling with anxieties over issues ranging from the healthcare system’s capacity to address shortages in medical supplies to unemployment caused by the outbreak. Average Yemenis have faced these challenges and more over the past few years – not because of an invisible enemy like the coronavirus, but due to the ongoing U.S.-Saudi‑U.A.E. war and blockade that is now in its fifth year.
For five years, people in Yemen have also faced the trauma and terror resulting from ongoing bombings that have targeted people in their homes, schools, streets, weddings and funerals. Government workers in most of Yemen have not received salaries since 2016, and over 3 million people have lost their homes and are internally displaced. There are no bailouts or urgent checks to sustain them through this crisis. When food stocks run out due to the Saudi-imposed blockade, people starve to death. When medicine runs out, children die of preventable illnesses.
In addition to the lives lost due to the relentless bombing, the blockade enforced by the Saudi-led coalition has caused widespread devastation on a country that — prior to the war — was importing 90% of its food, and was among the most water-stressed countries in the world. At last count, an estimated 85,000 children below the age of five may have died of starvation and disease. Since 2017, the UN has declared Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with one child dying every 10 minutes of hunger and preventable illnesses since at least 2016. Today, half the population is facing famine, and 80 percent require humanitarian assistance to survive.
In a country facing so much devastation, the coronavirus global pandemic raises important concerns about the impact such an outbreak will have on Yemen. There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yemen to date, but the arrival of this virus would leave an already battered Yemeni-healthcare system even more vulnerable. To understand Yemen’s capacity to deal with a potential coronavirus outbreak, In These Times with Yemeni-American epidemiologist Dr. Aisha Jumaan, who is also the President of Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation and has over 20 years of experience in public health. Dr. Jumaan lives in Seattle and travels to Yemen at least once a year for relief work.
Describing the current challenges facing Yemen’s healthcare system, Dr. Jumaan notes that over 50% of Yemenis do not have access to healthcare, and the other half has access to a “compromised healthcare system” that lacks the personnel, medicine and medical equipment necessary to treat the population’s basic health needs. Yemen, she notes, is currently facing four major outbreaks: H1N1 or swine flu, dengue fever, cholera and diphtheria—the latter of which has not been present in Yemen for nearly 30 years. Even with the support of international aid and UN agencies, the Saudi-imposed blockade has made it impossible to address Yemen’s healthcare needs that have been exacerbated by the war.
According to the World Health Organization’s Representative in Yemen, Altaf Musani, the WHO is working with Saudi Arabia to track COVID-19 in Yemen. In a press conference on March 17, Musani noted that authorities in Yemen have “tracked and screened” over 4,500 people entering Yemen by land, air or sea and continue to monitor 80% of them over the following two weeks. Dr. Jumaan notes that they are only testing people with symptoms, which does not account for those who can infect others asymptomatically.
If coronavirus were to be detected in Yemen, the country experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis would face challenges above and beyond any other nation in the world today. Simply put, it would spell complete destruction to a population that is already dying, starving, facing illness, and being terrorized by five years of U.S. and Saudi bombings.
In addition to there not being enough coronavirus reagents in Yemen — which are crucial to testing the disease — Dr. Jumaan notes that most of the population lacks access to drinking water: “How can they wash their hands with their scarce water?” she asks, adding that Saudi bombing has targeted water systems in Yemen and there’s not enough fuel to operate water plants that could still be functional.
As for the ability to test and treat any cases of coronavirus, Dr. Jumaan sounds a clear and dire alarm: “They do not have the capacity to test large numbers of people. They don’t have chemicals for disinfectants. Face masks are highly expensive, if available at all. They cannot test or isolate [people]. They do not have equipment. They do not have ventilators. There’s nothing that they have to even make them deal with this at 10% capacity.”
While the globe is facing an unprecedented crisis, this is a moment to come together as human beings and call on the Trump administration to end its illegal participation in the war on Yemen and to lift the blockade that is choking its people.
Shireen Al-Adeimi is an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University. Since 2015, she has played an active role in raising awareness about the Saudi-led war on her country of birth, Yemen, and works to encourage political action to end U.S. support.