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COVID-19 in a war zone


“Marina, how are you? I am worried about you, how is the situation with Corona?” a Yemeni friend asked me last week via Whatsapp. It was not the first time that one of my friends showed their concern about the situation in the Netherlands, which touched me greatly. They are living Yemen, in the midst of a civil war that has led to the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world according to the United Nations, and worry about me, living in one of the most economically developed countries. Their concerns are inspired by the images they see on TV and on social media about the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences in Western countries. People in hospitals, the high numbers of people that have died, the measures that have been taken, resulting in deserted streets, schools, markets, shops etcera.  I reassure them that I am fine, and that they don’t have to worry about me. I am more concerned about them. What will happen when COVID-19 enters Yemen? How can the population which has been hit so hard by the ongoing civil war survive another catastrophe?

On March 26 Yemen entered the sixth year of the civil war. 24 million people out of a population of 29 million are in need of humanitarian aid, 10 million people suffer from famine and 4 million people have been displaced. Yemen’s health care sector has almost collapsed in the past five years: only 50 per cent of the health facilities including hospitals is still functioning. Cholera has affected many people, in addition to other infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. The rapid global expansion of COVID-19 was thus immediately considered a huge threat for the Yemeni population. At the beginning of the pandemic the UN asked the warring parties to install a ceasefire in order to prevent an outbreak. The Saudi Led Coalition (SLC), which is supporting the government of Yemen led by President Hadi, responded to this call and announced a truce for two weeks starting on April 9. The Houthis, which are controlling the northern part of Yemen, did not endorse the terms of the ceasefire and continued violent attacks, in particular in the eastern part of the country. But also the SLC continued fighting on the ground. In the meantime the Southern Transitional Council (STC),  a secessionist organization striving for the independence of South-Yemen (which used to be a separate state until 1990), declared self-rule in South Yemen, as it lost trust in the government of President Hadi. The situation in the south remains far from stable, and there are practically several wars being fought on Yemen’s territory. 

On the 10th of April the first COVID-19 patient was tested positive in the port town Al-Shihr in the south of Yemen, hundreds of kilometers away from Aden and the most populated areas in the north. The local authorities responded immediately and isolated the 60 year old patient who worked in the port. Yet, on April 29 five new cases have appeared in the city of Aden, also in South Yemen, and this has led to much concern. The fact that the country is divided between warring parties makes it extremely difficult to control the situation. UN Aid Coordinator Lisa Grande has called for immediate action of all parties (the Hadi government, the SLC, the Houthis, the STC, and all Yemeni citizens) to take the necessary precautions. The World Bank has reserved 27 million USD to fight COVID-19 in Yemen, aware of the catastrophic consequences a further outbreak would have. Yet, can the pandemic still be stopped?

Worst case scenarios are that the pandemic could affect more than 21 million people, and lead to around 70.000 deaths. “People don’t dare to go into the streets, everybody stays at home” a friend told me a week ago, but a few days later she said that life goes on and people still go outside. “Nobody knows exactly what is going on, there are a lot of rumours, but we really have no idea what the situation is with regard to corona”, she added. Shops close for a few days and then open again. Social distancing and staying at home is hardly possible in a country where family networks are close-knit and many people can only survive by going outside to sell their labor, run their shops, work in the fields and be involved in any other activity to make ends meet in an already deplorable economic situation. While my friends worry about me, I worry about them, and about all the other Yemenis who are longing for peace, security and a somewhat stable life.

Marina de Regt is assistant professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU, and regularly writes about the situation in Yemen.

One Comment

  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Every time I read a text from Marina de Regt about Yemen, or hear her talk about the country I am struck by the discrepancy between very harsh conditions and the beauty of the country and the resilience of many Yemenites. It is sweet her friends are worried about Marina, but we have more reason to worry about them.

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