The World Health Organization recently reported that the coronavirus COVID-19 is circulating undetected in Yemen. Unchartered territory, an invisible virus and a laissez-faire approach will most certainly increase the likelihood of a devastating outbreak among already severely malnourished people. There is no doubt that the already shattered health system and limited testing capacity will quickly be overwhelmed.
There are 38 COVID-19 hospitals across the country, all of which have fully occupied beds, yet Yemen reported only 237 confirmed cases and 45 deaths at the end of May. This is likely a gross underestimation of the numbers. Due to cost, fear, lack of space in hospitals and a shortage of healthcare workers, Yemenis are dying at home, undetected, undocumented, and possibly having spread the virus to their loved ones.
COVID-19 is a crisis on top of the existing crises of war, famine, and other rampant communicable diseases such as cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. The country, having already endured so much, is yet again facing another heart-breaking situation.
Before COVID-19, with more than half the hospitals defunct, Yemen was battling a degraded and fragile healthcare system that had collapsed after a protracted and devastating five-year war. Authorities were already struggling to address existing issues, and now it is impossible for them to properly respond to the outbreak. There is no money to pay hospital and support staff, very little personal protective equipment, and scant numbers of tests, making it impossible for anyone to know the real number of positive cases.
The virus will further ravage Yemen’s already fragile livelihoods and food security. With the difficulty of physical distancing in Yemen, authorities may be forced to choose between saving people from COVID-19 or saving their livelihoods. If they choose to demand physical distancing, saving them now, people will not be able to work to buy food and they will likely die from hunger later.
More than half of Yemenis are food insecure as income has plummeted and food imports have increased to 90 percent. Food and other essential commodity prices continue to be high due to currency depreciation and COVID-19 movement restrictions. Remittances play a major role in the economy, with billions flowing into the country annually. But due to COVID-19, this has been drastically reduced and other income is expected to further decline due to business disruptions and reduced purchasing power among employers.
The bottom line is that food is unaffordable and may soon be unavailable to the average Yemeni; it is likely millions will go hungry.
An urgent and effective response is needed
Without an urgent and effective socio-economic response, Yemen will continue to suffer, and Yemeni lives and livelihoods will be threatened for generations to come. We have seen how devastating the interruption of social services and economic breakdown can be during the West African Ebola outbreak, where more died from this than the virus itself. We cannot let this happen again in Yemen; we must connect health and socio-economic needs.
Despite COVID-19 beginning to wreak havoc on Yemen, UNDP is continuing to deliver at capacity in programmes that address socio-economic issues such as cash-for-work, public work schemes. and engaging small and medium businesses. In the fight against the virus’s spread, we are continuing to make a difference in Yemen and are uniquely positioned to lead Yemen’s COVID-19 national socio-economic impact response, in coordination with the UN system.
Globally we have five interactive pillars based upon our previous experiences in communicable outbreaks; the same approach will be followed in Yemen. When combined, they will likely prove effective in helping to preserve and rebuild the country.
1. Health first: Ensuring essential health services are available and protecting health systems.
2. Protecting people: Helping people cope with adversity through social protection and basic services.
3. Economic response: Protecting jobs, supporting small and medium businesses, and informal sector workers through economic response and recovery programmes.
4. Macro-economic response: Guiding fiscal and financial stimuli to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable and strengthening multilateral and regional responses.
5. Social cohesion: Promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response.
More than a health crisis
We must recognize that it is more than a health crisis; the pandemic will fundamentally affect Yemen’s society and economy. Poverty and inequality will increase worldwide, and the virus has great potential to further devastate the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis. Decisions that are made today will affect Yemen tomorrow.
Unfortunately, 2020 humanitarian assistance funding has plummeted and much-needed funding for COVID-19 is being diverted from existing programmes. This is causing the majority of the UN Yemen’s programmes to either shut down, or rework their existing outreach. We must continue to ensure that we do not forsake Yemenis as they face the worst time in their history.