War, famine and now coronavirus putting Yemenis further at risk

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), millions of Yemenis are officially on the verge of starvation.
Wednesday 12/08/2020
A Yemeni girl receives a food ration voucher at a charity kitchen in Sana’a, Yemen. (REUTERS)
A Yemeni girl receives a food ration voucher at a charity kitchen in Sana’a, Yemen. (REUTERS)

ADEN – After nearly six years of war, Yemen is entering a dangerous phase that threatens what remains of the state and could permanently affect the fate of its people.

Yemenis, who once hoped to see their country grow prosperous and stable, are now hoping for mere survival and to secure basic needs and services.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), millions of Yemenis are officially on the verge of starvation.

UNFPA’s acting representative in Yemen Nestor Owomunhangi said Yemenis suffer from the lowest levels of immunity and the highest levels of acute vulnerability in the world, noting that 10 million people are one step away from famine, with a quarter of the population suffering from malnutrition and acute malnutrition.

The coronavirus pandemic, according to Owomunhangi, has exacerbated these dangers. So far 1,826 Yemenis have been infected with the virus, with 518 deaths, according to official figures.

In areas under Houthi control, the situation appears to be worse, with militias concealing information about the outbreak of the virus and the number of cases. The Iran-backed Houthis have stopped making available the exact figures on the pandemic’s toll since last May.

Official figures are believed in any case to be far lower than reality due to poor detection methods and a lack of testing in various regions, according to health organisations.

Many experts say this is due to a lack of means and weak human, technical and financial capabilities used to confront the pandemic.

Yemen’s war has led to an almost complete collapse of all sectors, especially the health field, which experts fear could lead to mass spread of the disease.

Owomunhangi said that even basic preventive measures like hand-washing are not an option for many Yemenis, as more than 17 million people need support to meet basic water, sanitation and hygiene needs.

He warned that the health system is on the verge of collapse, with only half of health facilities operating or partially functioning.

In addition, he said, only 20% of the health system is functional and capable of providing maternal and child health services.

Owomunhangi said this could cause the number of cases in Yemen to rise more than anywhere else in the world, stressing that the fight against the virus must be made a priority.

The Yemeni conflict is further complicated by its regional and international extensions.

Iran, according to security reports, is clearly backing the Houthi militia to expand its influence in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, hoping to eventually control strategic waterways.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has since 2015 headed an Arab military alliance to support the internationally-recognised Yemeni government in its confrontation with the Houthis.

Yemen’s crisis is taking an especially harsh toll on vulnerable groups — particularly women and children — who Owomunhangi says are now at risk of three separate afflictions: famine, cholera and the coronavirus.

Because of the poor conditions, more than one million pregnant and breastfeeding women are suffering from malnutrition and more than nine million women and girls are in need of support to meet basic water, sanitation and hygiene needs.

The UN official noted that these women will continue to bear children and care for them, which means that their needs must be prioritised as part of Yemen’s health response.

A major challenge, however, is the country’s lack of funding. When the pandemic hit Yemen, Owomunhangi said, the UNFPA’s money for lifesaving reproductive health services had already dried up.

Since the beginning of the year, lack of funding has forced UNFPA to suspend the provision of reproductive health services in 140 of the 180 health facilities.

Owomunhangi stated that at the beginning of 2020, a comprehensive response plan was drawn up for Yemen to reach 4.1 million women and girls with life-saving services, and an appeal was made for $100.5 million. Fifty-two percent of the required funding has so far been obtained.

He pointed out that to continue providing assistance to the most vulnerable women and girls until the end of the year, the fund needs $43 million, with an additional $20 million to respond to the pandemic, which has rocked the health system.

Owomunhangi warned that stopping reproductive health services will lead to dire consequences and put the lives of two million women and girls of childbearing age in jeopardy.

A doctor checks a ventilator at a quarantine centre run by the International aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Aden. (REUTERS)
A doctor checks a ventilator at a quarantine centre run by the International aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Aden. (REUTERS)

These women and girls, he said, could lose access to life-saving reproductive health services, noting that 48,000 women will likely die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

Owomunhangi also cautioned that a lack of funding could mean workers in reproductive health units and maternity wards will not have equipment and personal preventive supplies from infection, which increases their exposure to risk and exposes mothers themselves to infection.

Owomunhangi said that the UNFPA was the first body to respond to the coronavirus crisis in Yemen, as the country’s healthcare system is on the verge of collapse. He explained that the fund is working to urgently provide life-saving medical and preventive equipment to help frontline health workers rescue mothers and children.

The UN official stressed that humanitarian aid is not the solution to any humanitarian crisis around the world, and that the peace process is the only mechanism through which to ultimately stop the suffering of millions of innocent people in Yemen.