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COVID-19 in Yemen – A Perfect Storm

War-torn Country’s Shattered Health Care System Is No Match for Pandemic

A girl wears a protective face mask amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sanaa, Yemen, March 17, 2020. (c) 2020 REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

As if Yemen’s protracted armed conflict and humanitarian crisis were not enough, COVID-19 presents an imminent danger that further threatens the country’s people.

Even though only one case of COVID-19 has been reported in Yemen, an outbreak seems inevitable as cases in surrounding countries continue to rise and Yemen’s health care system remains in tatters from the war.

Yemen’s 30 million people have endured more than 5 years of fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi armed group, which created conditions that facilitated several notable disease outbreaks, including cholera, diphtheria, measles, and dengue fever. Cholera alone has affected nearly every Yemeni family in some way, with almost two million suspected cases since 2016, according to the United Nations. Now that it is the rainy season, with two major recent flooding incidents in Sanaa and other cities, another cholera outbreak appears likely. An additional COVID-19 outbreak will be calamitous.

More than half of Yemen’s health facilities are closed or partially functioning. Since 2015, parties to the conflict have targeted not only medical facilities but also medical personnel, as health workers have been threatened, injured, abducted, detained, and killed. Consequently, many medical professionals have fled Yemen, further damaging the ability of the health care system to respond to a pandemic.

Unlike airstrikes and bombardment, COVID-19 casualties will be even more difficult to control. Earlier this month, Houthi Health Minister Taha al-Mutawakel warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen would be “unstoppable” and “extremely deadly.” Even with coordination between the authorities and health groups in the northern, southern, and eastern parts of the country, the minister admitted that no region has the resources and preparedness to deal with COVID-19.

Relief and humanitarian organizations in Yemen report it will be impossible to respond to COVID-19 casualties in the face of fighting and armed groups continuing to block access to humanitarian aid.

COVID-19 could be a greater scourge than anything Yemeni civilians have experienced. For Yemen to have a chance against the disease, parties to the conflict need to take immediate measures to protect civilians in areas under their control, abide by the laws of war, and ensure the unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance.

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