Yemen Had the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis. Then Covid Came

The first person I encountered after landing at Aden airport offered some words of reassurance. “Here in Yemen, you’re perfectly safe from corona,” the official said, eyeing the two masks firmly pinched around my nose and the bottle of sanitizer in my hand. “There’s no corona here.”

It was a claim I would hear repeatedly over a three-day visit to the strategic port city of about 1 million, a trip back to life when faces were exposed and social distancing was an alien concept. There were few masks visible on crowded buses and minivans, at a restaurant serving a buffet dinner, or in a packed outdoor market selling qat, the mildly narcotic leaf locals like to chew.

Covid-19 is low in the pecking order of catastrophe for Yemen, the poorest Arab state and a strategic conduit for global trade, where almost seven years of war had produced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even before the pandemic was born.

Yemen has struggled with mass outbreaks of cholera, dengue fever, and typhoid, and poverty has surged to affect as much as 78% of the population since 2015, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their allies began an offensive to restore the government ousted by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Now, as the world tries to emerge from a public health disaster, Yemen looks poised to hurtle more deeply into another one. After a first coronavirus wave in mid-2020, Covid-19 has “come roaring back” to Yemen, Mark Lowcock, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, warned in April.

“Corona got lost amid the other diseases and issues we have,” Afra Hariri, 46, a human-rights activist and lawyer, said as we sat in her car one night while a mechanic checked her tires. Even when she caught the virus a couple of months ago, Hariri said she was tested only for the other infectious diseases. “Cholera and typhoid kill. We didn’t hear that corona kills as much.”

With families packed into small homes, Yemenis ask how they can socially distance. With frequent cuts to water supply, they wonder how they can keep their hands clean. With almost no power, they can’t turn on fans or air conditioners, which they say makes it impossible to wear masks, especially because the temperature in late spring in Aden already reaches into the mid-30s Celsius (above 90 degrees Fahrenheit). The cost of protecting themselves is beyond most Yemenis. According to the World Bank, per-capita economic output in 2019 stood at $774, less than half what it was five years earlier, and 1/30 that of neighboring Saudi Arabia. Spending $3 a day on masks and a bottle of sanitizer for a family of six would be a luxury.

Mohammed Huwaish, a medical student who heads a volunteer group that raises awareness about the virus, says he asked the driver of a minivan taxi to cut the number of his passengers by half to avoid crowding. “The driver asked me if I would reimburse him for his loss,” says Huwaish, 23. “I had no response.”

Officially, Yemen has had about 6,700 confirmed cases and 1,321 deaths from Covid-19 since Jan. 3, 2020, according to the World Health Organization. That mortality rate of 20% is one of the worst in the world. But reporting mechanisms capture only a fraction of cases, Lowcock said. Hospitals and health facilities are turning people away because they have no more room or they lack supplies, he added in his briefing.

What happens in Yemen matters, not just locally but also for Middle East security and global trade, particularly for the oil market. On a drive along Aden’s harbor, whose sparkling turquoise waters lie at the foot of purplish brown volcanic mountains, it was clear why.

Tankers and large ships sail past Aden, heading toward the Bab al-Mandab Strait linking the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, through which oil shipments and much of global trade pass. In 2015, a year after they claimed the capital Sanaa and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee, the Houthi rebels took Aden before being repelled by the Saudi-led coalition.

“Imagine if Iran, through the Houthis, was still in control here,” says Lutfi Shatara, a senior member of the Southern Transitional Council that presides over the city. (The council, a secessionist organization formed in 2017, is in an uneasy alliance with the internationally recognized Yemeni government in the fight to dislodge Houthi rebels from Sanaa and other areas in the north.)

Shatara points to what was once a large hotel, where I had stayed on my first trip to Aden in 2000. The Houthis occupied it in 2015, and it was reduced to rubble by coalition airstrikes. In addition to the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and the Gulf, the Iranians would have controlled Bab al-Mandab. “They would have then been able to twist the world around their little finger,” he says.

About 233,000 people have died in the war, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services, and infrastructure, according to the UN. Most of the country’s population of 30 million is without access to safe water, sanitation, or proper health care. Saudi Arabia sent a first shipment of oil products in May to Aden, part of a $422 million grant to get 80 power stations running in areas under the Yemeni government’s control.

Even if the war ends, Yemen will likely remain unstable. The Saudi-backed anti-Houthi coalition is made up of armed groups with competing agendas. It could fracture once Saudi Arabia withdraws, leading to territorial fights. Then there’s the threat of extremism in a breeding ground for Islamic militants, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the threat of more refugees pouring into Europe.

“The fighting would get worse and the humanitarian situation would likely get worse as well, but there would be much less international involvement,” says Gregory D. Johnsen, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a U.S. research group. “This would be a mistake that the international community would be unlikely to recognize until it is too late.”

First comes the battle with the pandemic. Marc Schakal, program manager of Médecins Sans Frontières in Yemen, says there’s concern that a second wave of virus is spreading across the country after Eid al-Fitr, the national holiday when extended families meet to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The danger is more acute because of a shortage of oxygen supplies, something that’s contributed to the unfolding tragedy in India.

Yemen Had the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis. Then Covid Came

On a tour of Aden with Shatara and his wife, the city was just as vibrant as it was just over two decades ago—when I visited to cover the bombing in the harbor of the USS Cole by al-Qaeda—albeit more rundown. Remnants of Aden’s past as a British crown colony were still there: the “Little Ben” clock tower and a statue of Queen Victoria in a tiny park.

Behind dilapidated apartment blocks built 50 years ago when Aden was the capital of socialist South Yemen, young men packed a makeshift stadium to watch a soccer game. Nearby, boys played pool on the curb, girls jumped on a trampoline, and children weaved in and out of traffic selling garlands of jasmine. In the evening, to escape the heat of their homes, men lounged in groups on the streets, leaning against walls and lampposts, cheeks bulging with tennis-ball-size wads of qat.

I got the now familiar amused—and sometimes bewildered—glances for wearing a mask (sometimes two) and obsessively using sanitizer. Many Yemenis believe rumors that keep them from avoiding infection and seeking treatment. One is that the virus is a Western conspiracy, and the other is that patients who are admitted to the hospital are given an injection that kills them.

Hariri, the lawyer, spoke to a doctor by phone after she lost her sense of smell and taste, felt fatigue, and developed a fever. She started taking paracetamol and vitamin C, and incorporated tamarind, garlic, turmeric, milk and honey into her diet, foods Yemenis believe kill the virus.

She went with her 15-year-old son to the home of a friend, with a family of more than a dozen, so they could take care of her. They ate together and sat together, yet only her son caught Covid-19, and it was mild, she says. “So you see, corona is just influenza,” she said as we cruised the dark streets in her now-repaired sport utility vehicle. “End of discussion.”
 
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