5 Years of U.S.-Saudi War Have Left Yemen Highly Vulnerable to a Coronavirus Outbreak

Any U.S. response to the global pandemic must end the war.

Shireen Al-Adeimi March 24, 2020

A hospital worker sprays pesticides at the cholera treating department where cholera-infected people receive treatments at a hospital on May 14, 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

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.

When food stocks run out due to the Saudi-imposed blockade, people starve to death. When medicine runs out, children die of preventable illnesses.

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. Hav­ing lived through two civ­il wars in her coun­try of birth, Yemen, she has played an active role in rais­ing aware­ness about the U.S.-supported, Sau­di-led war on Yemen since 2015. Through her work, she aims to encour­age polit­i­cal action among fel­low Amer­i­cans to bring about an end to U.S. inter­ven­tion in Yemen.
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