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Coronavirus and aid cuts: Yemen faces 'two disasters at once'

Yemenis fear for their future as UN announces a halving of aid supplies and country declares first coronavirus case
A small glimmer of hope for the country came last week when a nationwide ceasefire was declared by the Saudi-led coalition (Reuters)
By in
Sanaa

“It is very difficult to face two disasters at once," Ahmed al-Matari, a Sanaa labourer said, as Yemenis in the war-torn country braced for a likely spread of the novel coronavirus.

"We have been thinking how to face the shortage of food aid and we may not find enough food, but to hear that coronavirus has hit Yemen, that's very difficult."

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Yemen reported its first coronavirus case on Friday in a country where war has already shattered the health system and spread hunger and disease.

The Ministry of Public Health and Population announced the first laboratory confirmed case of the virus in Hadhramout's Al-Shihr district.

As a precautionary measure, schools and universities had already been closed last month, while a campaign of awareness over the virus was launched and movements between Houthi-controlled and pro-Hadi areas were halted.

The appearance of the virus in the war-torn country is the latest blow to the country following an announcement from the World Food Programme (WFP) on Thursday that later this week it will halve the aid it gives to people in parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

Donors say they are cutting funding over concerns the rebels are hindering aid deliveries.

Impossible to stay at home

Matari goes to look for work every day to eke out a living for his seven family members, but he says there is not enough work nowadays and that he works for just one week a month at best.

Even before a Saudi-coalition entered Yemen's conflict in 2015, the country's situation was bad with many struggling to provide enough food for their families. 

“After 2015, there was still not enough work opportunities but the humanitarian aid reduced our suffering,” Matari told Middle East Eye, adding that the organisations provided him with food and he paid for the other basic commodities.

Now, with the threat of coronavirus spreading, he fears that many of his neighbours and relatives who receive food will suffer if aid is curtailed.

“If organisations reduce their aid in normal days, we can work and pay for the most important food," he said.

“But if they are going to reduce food amid the coronavirus, we will starve to death in our houses.”

Matari, who is in his late 40s, said it was impossible for him to stay at home if authorities asked him to, as he has no sources of income except from working and the humanitarian aid.

“Corona is a big threat and it came at the wrong time," he said.

"In this situation we need organisations to double their assistance as they will be the only resource of food, but unluckily they will instead reduce their aid.

“I hope that my message reaches organisations and authorities to solve their disputes and double their work in the coming months.

“If we have enough food we can stay at home and protect ourselves from corona but if we do not have enough we will go out to look for food."

'Lowest levels of immunity in the world'

Out of 30.5 million Yemenis, 24 million are in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance. 

The WFP feeds more than 12 million Yemenis a month, 80 percent of them in areas controlled by the Houthis.

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One of the biggest fears regarding the coronavirus threat is how the country's already weakened population, may of them solely reliant on WFP aid, will respond.

“After five years of war, people across the country have some of the lowest levels of immunity and highest levels of acute vulnerability in the world,” said Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen. 

“What’s facing Yemen is frightening. More people who become infected are likely to become severely ill than anywhere else.

“Only half of all health facilities are currently functioning. Fighting the virus is going to be hard, but it’s our highest priority.”

Matari agrees that many Yemenis, including his own children, do not have strong immunity to face the coronavirus as they do not eat properly but “only eat enough food to keep them alive”.

Water not awareness

A small glimmer of hope for the country came last week when a nationwide ceasefire was declared by the Saudi-led coalition, which said it was acting as a result of the pandemic. 

The coalition announced it would halt military operations for two weeks, but the Houthis have yet to agree to the truce.

Among the most vulnerable people to the virus at this time are the displaced families who have fled their homes over the years of fighting, with many of them now living in makeshift camps which struggle to provide basic services.

'Instead of the awareness we need organisations to fill the water tank in the camp on a daily basis and then we can wash our hands and stay safe'

- Ali Tallal, displaced person

“We received [coronavirus] awareness from some aid workers and they stressed hand washing but in this camp we do not have water to wash our hands several times a day,” Ali Tallal, who has been displaced from Hodeidah to Sanaa, told MEE.

The 39-year-old lives in a camp on the outskirts of the capital where they bring water from a mosque, and where aid organisations also sometimes provide them with water.

“Instead of the awareness we need organisations to fill the water tank in the camp on a daily basis and then we can wash our hands and stay safe,” he said.

Like all displaced people in the camp, Tallal is unemployed and depends on aid organisations and on his children who beg in the markets.

“Unfortunately, we resorted to ask our children to beg so they can help us to feed the family. If they do not beg we will starve to death as we do not have any other source of income," he said.

“Corona will be the main threat for us as our children are moving in the markets to beg and if they do not do that we can't find food.”

Tallal called on organisations to provide them with enough food and water so they can stay in their camps and will not have to go out to the markets.

'There will be a catastrophe'

In a press release on 10 April, the day the first case of the coronavirus was announced, Mercy Corps, an international organisation operating in Yemen, urged donors to act to help the situation

“We’re calling on donors to provide the direct, flexible and long-term support that humanitarian organisations need to help communities protect themselves against Covid-19, improve the health system’s ability to respond, and protect against further economic collapse,” the US-based organisation said.

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Fadhl Mohammed, a professor of sociology in Taiz, said the coming period will be very difficult so the authorities and organisations need to work together to help Yemenis.

“The economic situation is very difficult and many people can’t buy food, water or even soap, so the suffering in Yemen will be the worst," he told MEE.

“In Europe, Covid-19 is killing thousands and they have good health systems, and people can buy food and stay at home, but in Yemen most Yemenis can’t stock-up food for a week.”

Mohammed called on authorities to take the hunger of the poorest people into consideration and try to implement a proper solution now.

"If authorities do not prepare the best solution for hungry people, there will be a catastrophe,” he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.