The threat posed by the coronavirus isn’t enough to keep people in Yemen from social distancing at all times. That’s because every day is a struggle to get food and water.
More than 20 million people in the country, roughly 80% of its population, have a hard time getting enough food and water to survive, while 40% of the population could face an acute food crisis by the end of the year, exposing them to the dire complications of malnutrition, according to the humanitarian nonprofit CARE.
The years-long war engulfing Yemen had already created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Now, Yemen has a higher death rate from COVID-19 than the rest of the world because of a lack of health care facilities, workers, and supplies. This vicious cycle of the pandemic exacerbating existing humanitarian problems could intensify in the months ahead.
“We’re talking about a population that has had to endure six years of constant war, fighting and air strikes, and displacement,” Aaron Brent, CARE’s country director for Yemen, told Global Citizen. “The resulting food insecurity situation is reaching famine-like conditions. Added onto that, there’s a completely destroyed economy and disease outbreaks. COVID is coming on top of all these things. It’s another threat that the Yemeni people face.”
Yemen is an arid, mountainous country that has always been a net-importer of food, Brent said. Once the civil war began escalating in 2014, food production within the country further plunged and importing food became harder.
As a result, hunger rates immediately skyrocketed.
The situation has deteriorated every year since as bombs from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia destroy more roads, bridges, ports, hospitals, schools, water wells, and more.
Getting food to desperate communities is extremely challenging, Brent said. Under the guidance of the United Nations, organizations like CARE deliver emergency food aid and cash assistance to families. But transportation delays, disputes over territory, and a general lack of humanitarian funding has made it hard to meet the demand.
“Compared to last year, food imports are 20% down, and domestic food production has not increased,” Brent said. “The reason they’re down is because we think there is basically less foreign currency reserves to bring that food in, which is related to the collapsing Yemeni rial and the collapse of the Yemeni economy.”
By the end of the year, more than 2.4 million children could experience malnutrition, according to UNICEF. Malnutrition is when the body experiences a chronic lack of nutrients necessary for survival. In children, it can lead to wasting and irreversibly stunted physical and cognitive development.
“At a minimum, we can expect many more people to starve to death and to succumb to COVID-19 and to die of cholera and to watch their children die because they are not immunized for killer diseases,” Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, said in a statement.
It’s not just food that has become a scarce resource. Water has also become increasingly hard to come by.
“I’ve seen villages where you have to walk one to two hours to get water, and of course this is often done by women and children,” Brent said. “I’ve been in some of these places, they’re in the mountains, you basically have to walk around a precipice, skirting certain death, just to get buckets of water to bring back to your household to use.
“With COVID, one of the things you need to do is wash your hands, and if you don’t have access to clean water, that’s a huge problem,” he said.
Brent added that every time there’s significant rain, the country faces the risk of a renewed cholera outbreak because of the lack of adequate water and sanitation infrastructure.
Because of the war, Yemenis are unable to get fuel for their everyday needs. The fuel shortage is disrupting electricity supplies, making it hard for hospitals to operate, and undermining the delivery of goods such as food.
“When I go around Sanaa in the north of Yemen, you see lines at each fuel station that are basically kilometers long,” Brent said. “Someone who wants to get fuel has to get in that line and wait for a whole day to get a few liters or gallons of fuel that they can use for themselves and their families.
“The price of most commodities is linked to the price of fuel,” he added. “The higher the price of fuel, the higher the price of commodities, because traders use fuel to transport those commodities, so we think we’re going to start to see some pretty serious increases in food prices.”
As in all conflicts, women and children bear the brunt of the socioeconomic repercussions, a dynamic that has worsened amid the pandemic.
Women are at a heightened risk of contracting the virus as they assume the bulk of caregiving responsibilities, Brent said, while children have been newly displaced from their schools. Domestic violence, meanwhile, has sharply risen since the start of the war.
People are now leaving their homes in large numbers to avoid infection hotspots.
The crisis in Yemen is multifaceted and complex, but Brent said that no progress can be made on any front until the war is ended.
“The only solution to this long-term problem is an end to the conflict,” he said. “We need an end to the conflict, a durable solution, an inclusive solution that results from the negotiations, solutions that include the voices of women, youth, and all the parties in Yemen. This is what the international community needs to be calling for, asking governments to help negotiate this.”
Ceasefire negotiations are currently ongoing between the government of Yemen and the Houthis, the sectarian group that controls a large swath of the country.
In the meantime, humanitarian groups like CARE need urgent funding to prevent the situation in Yemen from getting worse.
CARE, in particular, focuses on numerous forms of aid in Yemen. The organization provides families with food aid, cash transfers, and small business and livelihood support; rehabilitates roads and schools; builds latrines, toilets, and water systems; trains and supports teachers; and champions women.
“I know that for the rest of the world it is a very difficult time — for most, unprecedented — and many will suffer an economic crisis as a result of this,” Brent recently wrote. “But for Yemen when the conflict really began to escalate five years ago, it was also unprecedented. My plea is that, no matter how bad it gets in your country, it is much worse in Yemen. So please spare a thought for the people of Yemen at this time, too.”