The World Health Organization recently indicated 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 an already severely malnourished population. 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 whom have fully occupied beds, yet Yemen reported only 253 COVID-19 infections with 50 deaths as of 28 May. This is likely a gross underestimation of the virus’ spread across the country with the reality being much higher in both the number of people infected and those dying. Due to factors such as cost, fear, denied access to hospitals due to lack of space 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 existing crises such as war, famine, and other rampant communicable diseases like cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. The country, having already faced so much, is yet again facing another heart-breaking situation.
Before COVID-19, with over half the hospitals defunct, Yemen was already battling a degraded and fragile healthcare system that collapsed after a protracted and devastating five-year war. Authorities were already struggling to address existing issues, but now with the addition of COVID-19, it is impossible for them to properly respond to the outbreak. Across the country, 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 numbers of COVID-19 positive cases.
Already fragile, the virus will further ravage Yemen’s 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 make the money necessary to purchase food and they will likely die from hunger later.
Already over half of Yemenis are food insecure as income has plummeted and food imports have increased to 90 per cent. Unfortunately, compared to pre-conflict levels, food and essential non-food commodity prices continue to be high due to currency depreciation and COVID-19 movement restrictions. Furthermore, remittances play a major role in the economy with billions sent flowing into the country annually. But due to COVID-19, this has drastically reduced and other access to 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.
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-related issues such as cash-for-work, public work schemes and engaging micro-, small and medium enterprises. In the fight against the virus’ 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 developed 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’s society.
- Health first: Ensuring essential health services are available and protecting health systems.
- Protecting people: Helping people cope with adversity through social protection and basic services.
- Economic response: Protecting jobs, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, and informal sector workers through economic response and recovery programmes.
- Macro-economic response: Guiding fiscal and financial stimuli to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable and strengthening multilateral and regional responses.
- Social Cohesion: Promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic will fundamentally affect Yemen’s society and economy – we must recognize that it is more than a health crisis. Poverty and inequalities will be increased on a global scale 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.
Yemen continues to need high levels of assistance because of a combination of conflict and poor macroeconomic conditions, but the 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 shutter or rework their existing outreach, ultimately reaching fewer Yemenis during their time of greatest need. We must continue to ensure that we do not forsake Yemen now when they are facing the direst time in their history.