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The Yemen Crisis: Pandemic and Conflict

Updated: Aug 14

Nick Webb explores how Coronavirus has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis caused by the civil war in Yemen.

Photo by Julien Harneis

Since 2015, the country of Yemen has been at war. The conflict has devastated the nation and has caused what the UN has declared to be the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

In the current climate of a global pandemic, charities have seen a huge drop in aid, and UNICEF has said that Yemen is now facing “an emergency within an emergency.

Roots of the Yemen Conflict

The civil war in Yemen has its roots in the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. The uprising overthrew the then long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and forced him to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Since then, President Hadi has faced uprisings from jihadists, security groups who remained loyal to former president Saleh, and rebellions from the Houthi movement, who champion a minority Muslim sect in Yemen, the Zaidi Shia Muslims. As their power grew, and more people began to support them, the Houthis took control of areas across Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. 

In 2015, the Houthis and the forces loyal to Saleh forced President Hadi to flee abroad. In order to help restore Hadi’s presidency in Yemen, several other Shia-led Arabic states, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, began an air campaign to defeat the Houthis, along with some support from European countries including France and the UK. 

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After five years of conflict, the war continues to drag on, after original estimates said that it would be over in a matter of weeks.  The chaos has led to two million Yemenis being forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict. The chaos in the country has allowed Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Quaeda to take advantage of the situation and seize territories in the South of Yemen, going on to carry out several deadly attacks including in Aden, where President Hadi’s supporters had managed to set up a new capital. 

By March 2020, The UN Security Council had verified over 7,700 civilian deaths, however some groups believe the number to be much higher, with the US Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ALED) registering 100,000 deaths, including 12,000 civilians. 

Compounding these numbers, the collapsed infrastructure around Yemen has led to thousands of deaths from preventable causes such as malnutrition, disease and poor health. Charities have raised millions of pounds to help the estimated 24 million people (80% of the population) who are in need of humanitarian assistance. By the start of 2020, “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world” was already affecting millions of people by reducing access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation.

Disease in Yemen 

With aid being slashed amid the various crises, clean water and sanitation services are being pushed even further than before. This, coupled with overstretched health services dealing with casualties from both the war and Covid-19, cases of Cholera are going undetected and untreated. Cholera has been present in the country for the last few years, with 100,000 suspected cases in the first quarter of 2020, and tens of thousands more suspected undocumented cases. 

Yemen’s first Covid-19 case was recorded in April, and while the officially recorded figures show less than 2000 cases as of the beginning of August, it is thought that the true number could be as high as 1 million due to lack of testing facilities. Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director, Muhsin Siddiquey said that:

“rather than show that Yemen has cholera and COVID under control, the low official numbers demonstrate the exact opposite. A lack of working health facilities and people too scared to get treatment mean that the numbers suffering from these diseases are being vastly under recorded.”

Hospitals in Yemen, which are already under strain due to the pressures of warfare, are under-equipped to deal with Coronavirus. The World Health Organisation has figures which show there are only four laboratories in the whole of Yemen which are equipped to test for Covid-19. Doctors in the country have shortages of essential equipment and PPE to protect themselves from the disease, and the rudimentary hospitals are poorly-equipped to treat Coronavirus patients.


While the pandemic has been occurring, other countries have been looking inwards towards their own healthcare, and subsequently, aid funding to Yemen has dropped significantly. Aid for children in particular has been hit, and UNICEF has said that they need £44 million by the end of August, otherwise there is a high risk that over 23,500 children will die of severe acute malnutrition, with millions more at risk of not having access to essential nutritional supplements or immunisations against deadly diseases. 

“We cannot overstate the scale of this emergency as children, in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, battle for survival as Covid-19 takes hold.” - Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen

In a new UNICEF report, “Yemen Five Years on: Children, conflict and Covid-19”, it is warned that not only is the health system in Yemen on the brink of collapse, the number of children who could die of preventable causes by the end of the year could rise by 28%. Poor access to clean water and hospitals means that without the extra funding required, the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” could get even worse. 

Ms Nyanti has said:

“If we do not receive urgent funding, children will be pushed to the brink of starvation and many will die. The international community will be sending a message that the lives of children in a nation devastated by conflict, disease and economic collapse, simply do not matter.”

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