COVID-19 ravages an already desperate Yemen

August 19, 2020


When COVID-19 began sweeping the globe in March, I found myself travelling outside Yemen where I have worked since 2016. With the airports in the region quickly closing, I did everything in my power to get back.  

I knew it was only a matter of time until the pandemic reached Yemen too.

The first case was reported on April 10. Since then, COVID-19 has been spreading across the country. When the news was announced, my colleagues and I had a sinking feeling. It was clear to us that Yemen would be affected at a wider, faster, and deadlier rate than anywhere else.

That is because after nearly six years of war, 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million population—more than 24 million people—depend on humanitarian assistance to survive. Millions are severely malnourished and weakened by diseases such as dengue, malaria, and cholera. They suffer from pre-existing conditions and are uniquely vulnerable to the worst and deadliest impact of COVID-19.

Yemen is already the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis. COVID-19 is ready to deliver a knock-out punch.

Just how quickly the virus is spreading here is unknown, because of the lack of testing and reporting. The UN is estimating that the percentage of those who die from COVID-19 is as high as 30 percent—well above anywhere else on the planet. To put this in perspective, the average fatality rate is seven percent and in many more advanced countries it hovers around three percent. On top of everything else that Yemen is experiencing, it can now also add the highest unofficial death rate to COVID-19 in the world.

I have worked with UNDP in Yemen for four years and have seen the country suffer unimaginably from the war and other devastating epidemics. But I knew this would be different. Yemen’s healthcare system is ravaged. According to our partners at the World Bank, there are only three doctors and seven hospital beds for every 10,000 people.

And now, because of the war, only about half of the health facilities are operational. Two-thirds of Yemenis have basic healthcare, and half don’t have running water that would allow essential handwashing to keep from spreading the disease.  

Even among those who can afford healthcare, many are not seeking it now for fear of stigmatization, violence, community ostracization. In short, we are seeing that Yemenis would rather die at home than seek care. It is heartbreaking.

We must not forget the huge consequences this will have, even after the pandemic is under control. Yemen will continue to face socio-economic fallout from COVID-19 for potentially generations to come if we do not do anything now.

Remittances from Yemeni diaspora, which normally total more than US$3.5 billion annually and were vital to the survival of millions, used to pour into the country. But now, because of the oil crisis and with many Yemeni expatriates affected by the drop in oil revenues, remittances are projected to fall by up to 70 percent. This will translate into millions becoming poorer going without food and water.

As an international community, we have the moral obligation to support Yemen now to keep it from going over the cliff. To help do this, the UN—with UNDP leading—is taking urgent and immediate action. Our integrated solutions help tackle the many health, social, economic and environmental challenges connected to the crisis, helping advance progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

We are working to shore up the public health sector by equipping COVID-19 isolation centres with solar energy panels. This allows the key healthcare facilities to function even with the chronic lack of electricity.

Our awareness-raising programmes help communities understand COVID-19, protect themselves and lessen stigmatization. This aims to empower people to seek the healthcare they need for COVID-19 and chronic diseases today, creating a healthy population for a better future tomorrow.

We are working to empower small and medium-sized businesses to build businesses that address COVID-19 personal protection now but also to transition into a viable post-COVID-19 business too.

At the same time, we are creating jobs so people can make up for missed income due to job loss or decreased family remittances. This will allow them to take care of their families.

We are taking action, yes, but more is needed.

Last month, the Yemen international pledging conference failed to fill the huge funding gaps that will help us to address COVID-19 and other needs throughout the country. Funding dropped by 65 percent compared with the year before.

Yemen is already the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis. We must wake up to the fact that right now is not a time to turn our backs on the country. We cannot leave Yemen behind while it suffers in silence. The people of Yemen cannot wait.