Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Saudi Arabia has engaged in a number of questionable practices that have Yemenis fearing the Kingdom may be intentionally trying to spread the virus.
SANA’A, YEMEN — The war in Yemen began in earnest on Mar. 26, 2015, but it is about to take on another complex dimension as that country grapples with a collapsed healthcare system and a new Saudi military escalation amid the looming threat of a coronavirus outbreak. That outbreak threatens a population already struggling against an unprecedented explosion of famine, epidemics and disease.
On Monday, the Saudi-led coalition announced a new military operation targeting three major Yemeni cities, including Sana’a, Hodeida, and Sadaa. In Sana’a, More than ten airstrikes struck a farm that bred Arabian horses in southeast Sana’a, killing 70 horses and injuring many more. A number of horse breeders were also killed or wounded in the attack. Saudi airstrikes also targeted the populated Attan neighborhood and the Sana’a International Airport.
In Hodeida, Saudi warplanes bombed a quarantine center that had been prepared to treat coronavirus patients. Saudi airstrikes also destroyed water wells on Kamran Island, which was reportedly struck with three U.S.-made bombs. The wells provided clean water to more than 10,000 people. The airstrikes also targeted civilian facilities in the al-Jah and al-Saleif districts. Those attacks claimed a yet confirmed number of casualties and destroyed civilian infrastructure that had been rebuilt following prior Saudi attacks.
Ansar Allah, the political wing of Yemen’s Houthis, the primary force fighting to repel Saudi forces from Yemen, vowed a “painful response” and said that the Saudi raids are a dangerous escalation that would be met with the bombing of vital facilities deep inside Saudi Arabia, including sensitive economic targets. On Sunday, Yemen’s Houthi-allied Army targeted what they called strategic and sensitive sites in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Najran, and Jizan using a squadron of domestically-manufactured combat drones and ballistic missiles in retaliation for Saudi airstrikes that targeted al-Jawf, Marib, and Sadaa last week.
In addition to the ongoing Saudi airstrikes and blockade on the country, epidemics such as diphtheria, cholera, dengue fever, swine flu, and malaria are still sweeping the nation, making it nearly impossible for Yemenis to effectively face the coming novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which is sweeping the world. To Yemenis, who have little to no access to healthcare, a pandemic like this is an added worry to their already troubled lives.
To tackle COVID-19, the Houthis welcomed a call by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a ceasefire in the war-ridden country. “We welcome the UN Secretary-General’s call for ceasefire… we reaffirmed our readiness to deal with all peace initiatives to achieve a comprehensive political solution,” said Mahdi al-Mashat, the president of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council said. Al-Mashat went to say, “We are ready to cooperate to move from war stage to peace.”
On Wednesday, Guterres urged Yemen’s rival parties to work with his Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to achieve a nationwide de-escalation, saying, “a political solution is the only way to a comprehensive and sustainable resolution of the conflict in Yemen.”
Although Turki al-Maliki, spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, stated that the coalition supported Griffiths’ efforts in Yemen, Saudi warplanes launched over 100 airstrikes since Guterres’ statement was made. The airstrikes targeted populated areas in al-Jawf, Marib, and Yemeni border districts.
Moreover, authorities in the Sana’a Health Ministry accused Saudi Arabia of trying to spread the coronavirus intentionally. On Monday, Saudi warplanes dropped boxes containing face masks in the al-Ahli district in Hodeida province and Bani Sa’ad and al-Taweilah in the al-Mahwit governorate as well as Nugom in Sana’a. The number of masks was insignificant and dropped into densely populated areas causing a predictably frenzied panic among desperate citizens who all stormed the locations to retrieve what protection they could. Authorities accuse the Saudi government of intentionally causing panic among Yemenis in order to encourage them to break social distancing guidelines and expedite the spread of COVID-19. If Saudi officials genuinely wanted to provide aid to Yemeni civilians, they say, they could do so through official UN channels. Some residents told MintPress that they also fear the masks could be contaminated with the coronavirus, and Yemeni officials have warned residents to be cautious of free equipment offered by the Saudi Coalition.
The Ministry of Health said Saudi Arabia is also trying to spread COVID-19 by deporting Yemenis from Saudi Arabia in large numbers, a practice they say began last month when the pandemic was already well underway.
In addition, the Saudi-led coalition allowed four passenger aircraft to land in Yemen last week with a total of 1,000 passengers on board; this at a time when most countries have suspended inbound flights in an effort to contain the pandemic. The coalition has near complete control of Yemen’s airspace.
Ansar Allah said that the Saudi-led coalition — which has imposed an all-out blockade on the country — will be responsible for a possible spread of the coronavirus to Yemen. Houthi leader Mohammed al-Houthi said on Twitter that “those who have been killing the Yemenis with their weapons would not hesitate to take their lives through less costly means.” Many Yemenis believe that the Saudi-led coalition would not hesitate to intentionally spread coronavirus in Yemen, especially after their bloody five-year-old military campaign has achieved so little.
The United States, for its part, is not making the dire situation facing Yemenis any easier. The country, a primary backer of Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen, is decreasing aid to relief workers, according to Yemeni officials and political parties leaders who spoke to MintPress. Human rights activists say that if humanitarian and medical assistance does not reach Yemen soon, and in large quantities, the spread of COVID-19 in the country will be swift and deadly.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently slashed aid to Yemen, halting some $70 million used to fund healthcare programs in the country despite calls from NGOs, humanitarian groups, and even members of Congress, to delay the decision while the country prepares to battle the coronavirus outbreak.
Is Yemen already infected?
Thus far, there are no officially confirmed cases of the COVID-19 in Yemen; however, Ansar Allah officials told MintPress that they have recorded cases near the Saudi border and in southern Yemen, however, MintPress was not able to verify those claims independently. According to Ansar Allah, at least ten Saudi-backed militants in the Medi front near Hajjah have been infected with coronavirus, but those numbers have yet to be officially confirmed by medical bodies.
Although Yemen’s authorities have already taken pre-emptive measures by closing the ports under their control and preventing public gatherings, they would likely quickly be overwhelmed should there be an outbreak of coronavirus as they are already struggling to maintain essential services amid the ongoing Saudi siege and relentless attacks over the past five years.
Sana’a, in particular, where four million people live, including 1.5 million internally displaced people, is particularly susceptible to an outbreak. The city is overcrowded, suffering from an acute lack of sanitation and civilian infrastructure that has been all but decimated from five years of war.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Yemen since January 2016, according to a report by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project (ACLED). Yemeni doctors fear that if COVID-19 cannot be contained, that number could be dwarfed in a matter of days.
With the world preoccupied with the number of global cases and deaths that the virus has claimed, in Yemen, over 100,00 people die every year as a result of disease and epidemics like cholera and dengue fever, most of them children. If one is able to dodge death by war or disease, they now face the prospect of catching COVID-19 in a country where 19.7 million people are in need of the most basic health care, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
A healthcare system crippled by years of war
Countries with robust health care systems may be able to resist the virus, at least to some extent, but the ongoing blockade and bombing of civilian infrastructure, particularly hospitals, have crippled Yemen’s health system, leaving it unable to deal with even the most basic public health needs. Furthermore, medical treatment and supplies, including respirators, medical sterilizers, and cleaning tools, have become difficult to come by since the Saudi-led coalition forced the closure of the Sana’a International Airport in August 2016.
The Saudi blockade on what is already one of the poorest countries on earth entails tight control over all aspects of life in Yemen. The blockade also restricts movement to the country, meaning that access to medical supplies and entry for emergency medical personnel are all determined by Saudi Arabia. In fact, the reality of life under siege means that for Yemen’s people, their fate lies almost entirely in the hands of Saudi Arabia.
While most of the health services around the world are being overwhelmed by the coronavirus, the deliberate targeting, and attacks on the country’s healthcare facilities over the past five years will make matters worse. The Saudi-led coalition has destroyed 385 hospitals and health facilities. Most of the country’s estimated 300 remaining facilities are either closed or barely functioning. International organizations, already overwhelmed with the pandemic, have done little to provide the necessary medicine and medical supplies to help Yemen face COVID-19.
More than 250,000 Saudi-led airstrikes have also destroyed 8,610 service facilities, including 15 airports, 6,404 transportation-related targets, 866 food stores, 387 fuel stations, 668 markets, and 736 food trucks, according to Yemen’s Eye of Humanity Center for Human Rights and Development. The report from the center, issued on the fifth anniversary of the war, also reported that 16 ports, 297 electrical stations and generators, 1,990 reservoirs and water networks, and 1,953 government facilities have been bombed. Moreover, at least 458,061 houses have been destroyed or damaged.
First famine, now a pandemic
According to the UN, those facing malnourishment are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and Yemen is in the midst of the world’s worst famine. The UN has said that 22.2 million Yemenis are in dire need of food, including 8.4 million that are threatened immediately by severe hunger. According to the world body, Yemen is suffering from the most severe famine in over 100 years as a result of the Saudi-led war backed by the United States.
The Saudi-led coalition has targeted Yemen’s urban and rural livelihood alike, bombing farms, food systems, markets, water facilities, transportation infrastructure, and even agricultural extension offices. In coastal areas, fishing boats and food processing and storage facilities have been targeted, undermining livelihoods, disrupting local food production, and forcing residents to flee to the city.
Now, Yemen’s nationwide level of household food insecurity hovers at over 70 percent. Fifty percent of rural households and 20 percent of urban households are now food insecure. Almost one-third of Yemenis do not have enough food to satisfy basic nutritional needs. Underweight and stunted children have become a regular sight, especially amongst the holdouts in rural areas.
High precision U.S. bombs dropped by Saudi-led coalition warplanes have destroyed at least 1,834 irrigation pumps, 109 artesian and surface wells, 1,170 modern irrigation networks, 33 solar irrigation units, 12 diggers, 750 pieces of agricultural equipment, 940,400 farms, 7,531 agricultural reserves, 30 productive nurseries, 182 poultry farms, and 359,944 beehives.
Attacks have completely destroyed at least 45 water installations (dams, barriers, reservoirs) and partially destroyed at least 488, including the ancient Marib Dam. As of Mar. 20, 2020, every fish off-loading port in Yemen had been targeted by Saudi attacks. At least 220 fishing boats have been destroyed, 222 fishermen have been killed, and 40,000 fishermen have lost their only source of income. According to Yemen’s Ministry of Fishing Wealth, this affects the lives of more than two million people living in coastal cities and villages.
Moreover, the war, which has wreaked havoc on Yemen’s already fragile economy, has caused thousands in Yemen to lose their jobs. Many local and foreign companies have ceased operations in the country. According to Yemen’s Ministry of Social Affairs, over 5 million workers are without jobs. So far, Salaries for public-sector workers have not been paid regularly since the war began, and Saudi Arabia seized control of Yemen’s Central Bank, leaving vulnerable populations at risk of falling victim to epidemics.
It’s true that the United States and many other countries, including Britain and France, think of their own citizens first, their problems and their challenges. Yet these countries provide support to Saudi Arabia at all levels, allowing it to collapse Yemen’s health sector amid the worst pandemic in recent history.
Feature photo | A medical staff member works on setting up an isolation room at a coronavirus quarantine ward at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Mar. 15, 2020. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.