The prospect of Covid-19 hitting Yemen is terrifying considering the already ongoing humanitarian catastrophes in the country.
The UN has urged all actors involved in wars to end their hostilities in order to help the world contain Covid-19 (coronavirus).
Last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a “global ceasefire in all corners of the world…to put armed conflict on lock-down and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”
Yet as Covid-19 spreads, violent conflicts in the Arab world continue. Several civil wars across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will make it extremely difficult for the region to deal with this pandemic.
Yemen is probably the Arab state most vulnerable to coronavirus. Even without the conflict, the Arab region’s poorest country would be far from having adequate resources to cope with Covid-19.
With destroyed infrastructure, a nearly collapsed health care system, widespread malnourishment, two million cholera cases, crowded refugee camps, and more than five years of warfare, one could only imagine how much coronavirus could exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crises.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned of “a perfect storm of a disaster should this virus introduce itself” to Yemen.
Unfortunately, the recent escalation of violence in the conflict highlights how the parties have not accepted Secretary-General Guterres’ demand for a “global ceasefire” — at least not for too long.
To the contrary, late last month the Saudi-led coalition carried out air strikes on parts of Houthi-controlled northern Yemen. The coalition’s attacks followed the interception of ballistic missiles fired at Riyadh and southern Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi attacks against the Kingdom came on the five-year-anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s direct military intervention against the Houthi rebels who usurped control of Sana‘a in September 2014.
Although as of writing there have been no documented cases of coronavirus in Yemen, this pandemic could make the country’s humanitarian disasters even more catastrophic should it hit the country.
Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that Covid-19 is also an opportunity for the various actors in Yemen’s conflict to make concessions in a face-saving way in the interest bringing peace to the war-torn country.
Although a ceasefire would not immediately resolve the underlying causes of the Yemeni civil war, it is a necessary first step.
Without a truce that can quickly go into effect, Yemen will be awaiting a looming crisis that threatens to unleash a whole new wave of widespread death and misery across the country five years after the Saudis and Emiratis launched “Operation Decisive Storm”.
Under the pretext of protecting Yemen from Covid-19, the leaders of the various sides fighting in Yemen could prioritise the safety and health of Yemenis above their own political agendas. If ever there were a time for such a shift in priorities, it would be now.
But a danger for Yemen is that the main players might conclude that more is to be gained than lost from continued warfare. The Houthis have made gains on the ground throughout the past several months, underscoring their real strength. Their recent firing of ballistic missiles at Riyadh was a powerful reminder that the Iranian-backed rebels are capable of threatening the Kingdom’s security with their arsenal of drones and missiles.
That the Saudis are going back to Oman as a backchannel between Riyadh and the Houthis likely says much about the Saudi leadership’s continued interest in winding down the war in Yemen through a negotiated settlement. Yet how much the Houthis will give up to the Saudis and Yemen’s internationally recognised government while the Tehran-sponsored insurgents are in a position of strength is unclear.
Yemen’s looming Covid-19 crisis is also playing out in relation to the conflict between the country’s UN-recognised administration and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC).
In order to weaken Preident Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government, individuals tied to the STC have been reportedly withholding equipment that the WHO sent to Yemen.
At the same time, in Yemen there is information warfare surrounding Covid-19. For example, certain Houthi figures are accusing the US of being behind this pandemic while using their media outlets to sell a message about the Islamic Republic successfully taking care of the disease despite Washington’s “maximum pressure”.
Mohammed al Houthi, a prominent Houthi militia leader, accused the Saudi authorities of one of the “greatest sins” after they temporarily closed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to help contain the spread of coronavirus —a move which he later said illustrated Saudi Arabia’s move toward secularism.
For Yemenis, humanitarian crises and pandemics are not new. They have been experiencing them throughout the past five years.
Tragically, the health and security of Yemenis have never been priorities for the major political actors involved in the country’s multisided conflict.
The blocking of humanitarian aid for political purposes, bombing of hospitals, and many more egregious acts have resulted in millions of Yemenis paying the price for this nightmarish conflict continuing.
Indeed, it is terrifying to consider how much coronavirus could worsen Yemen’s ongoing catastrophes.
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