SANA’A – Yemen, already reeling from the impact of war and disease, enters its sixth year of armed conflict vulnerable to possible catastrophe from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
March 25 marked five years since the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen with the aim of re-instating the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, ousted months earlier by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
The conflict has plunged the country into what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 22 million people, or 80 percent of the Yemeni population, depending on humanitarian assistance to survive.
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said on Wednesday on Twitter: “Battlefields are dividing Yemen and making it harder to combat the possible outbreak of COVID-19.”
“I urge the parties to hear Antonio Guterres’ call, work with my office to de-escalate violence nationwide & work together to protect the Yemeni people,” Griffiths added, referring to the UN secretary-general’s plea on Monday for a “global cease-fire” to allow the world to tackle the coronavirus.
Both the rebels and the Hadi government welcomed the calls for a halt to fighting after the failure of several peace initiatives over the past five years.
Yemen has not detected any coronavirus cases to date, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but the war has shattered the impoverished nation’s health-care system.
Thousands of Yemeni hospitals have been destroyed or damaged in coalition airstrikes, crippling the country’s ability to face a possible outbreak of the coronavirus.
“Our suffering is already multiplied by the war. Another disaster won’t hurt,” Ahmed Hazaa, a shopkeeper in Sana’a, told EFE. “Look around. People go about their normal life no matter what.”
“Yemenis are used to disaster and agony,” he said.
With less than 45 percent of hospitals able to function, nearly half of Yemenis have no access to medical care.
Malnutrition and displacement due to violence have led to the spread of diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever.
And delivering aid is complicated given the ban imposed on Yemeni airspace by the Arab coalition, with only UN flights allowed.
Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, whose forces control most of northwestern Yemen, says the coronavirus is a weapon created by the United States.
In a televised speech last Saturday, he said that the US, which supports the Saudi-led coalition, was responsible for the coronavirus outbreak.
“The forces of arrogance, led by America, are today primarily responsible for these epidemics and disasters,” al-Houthi said. “They own laboratories, capabilities and means to spread epidemics, disasters and calamities.”
“We are approaching the sixth year of the American-Saudi aggression on our country. We have been suffering from the weapons of collective killing and genocide, the American bombs, the weapons provided by America, the deadly and unjust role played by America in our country through its tools in the region: the Saudi regime and the UAE regime,” al-Houthi said.
He noted, however, that the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is aiding Yemen in the current situation.
“This epidemic has not reached us. We have benefited from the blockade, from the isolation that has resulted from this unjust blockade,” the Houthi leader said.
A total of 18 hospitals across 11 provinces have been prepared to handle coronavirus cases, he said.
But there is a severe shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care workers.
This week, the Saudi government delivered to Yemen a shipment of medical supplies provided by the WHO. The aid was brought to Sana’a, the capital, and to the southwestern coastal city of Aden, the temporary headquarters of the Hadi government.