Yemen: Five years of war cripple coronavirus preparedness

  • Civilian casualties spike again in deadly escalation

Five years of war has crippled Yemen’s ability to prepare and face a possible outbreak of coronavirus, leaving millions extremely vulnerable under a decimated health system.

Although Yemen does not have any confirmed COVID-19 cases as yet, the Norwegian Refugee Council is extremely concerned that any outbreak could have catastrophic consequences for displaced families. Five years of war have damaged and destroyed thousands of hospitals, and water and sanitation systems have collapsed. Yemen is already reeling from the impact of other diseases, and is likely to see a rise in cholera once again with the onset of the rainy season.

“We’re extremely concerned that on top of everything else, the possibility of coronavirus reaching Yemen will have devastating consequences for an already overstretched health system and vulnerable population. Five years of war have crippled Yemen’s ability to respond to any outbreak and it is now a race against time to prepare,” said NRC’s Yemen Country Director Mohammed Abdi.

Suspension of flights in to the country and other measures to combat COVID-19 introduced by the authorities are impacting the humanitarian response. Because of these restrictions NRC and other humanitarian organisations are being forced to scale back their activities but trying to maintain essential humanitarian services such as food and cash distributions and scaling up COVID-19 prevention activities such as water, sanitation and hygiene awareness. In the event of an outbreak and a complete lock down any prolonged closure of the airports and ports could have a massive impact on the humanitarian situation with Yemen relying heavily on imported food, fuel and medicines.

Meanwhile a dangerous escalation of violence in parts of northern Yemen is putting civilians back in the firing line, threatening to tilt the country back to full-scale conflict. Almost 40,000 people were displaced in the first three months of this year in Marib and Al Jawf, forcing them into overcrowded conditions. They lack adequate access to water and sanitation, health care or ability to ‘self-isolate’, putting them at heightened risk of contracting the virus.  Over 500 civilians killed or injured between December and the end of February. The first two months of 2020 saw as many civilian casualties in Sana’a governorate, Al-Jawf and Marib as during the first six months of 2019. This reverses a positive trend at the second half of 2019 where local ceasefires and a de-escalation of conflict resulted in a drop in civilian casualties from 215 to 154 per month, and a 71 per cent drop in air strikes over the previous year.

Five years of war has seen humanitarian needs in Yemen soar. The number of Yemeni’s in need has risen from 21 million in 2015 to 24 million – 80 per cent of population. The number of people forced to flee has risen from 1 million in 2015 in to 3.6 million – an increase of 365 per cent. And the number of people going hungry has increased from 12 million in 2015 to a staggering 20 million, pushing Yemen to the brink of famine.

March 26 marks five years since the escalation of war in Yemen.

“It’s time for warring parties to put down their guns and bombs, agree a nationwide ceasefire, urgently resume peace talks and end this conflict once and for all,” Abdi said.


Facts and figures

  • The authorities in Sana’a and Aden have suspended all flights including humanitarian flights to Yemen until further notice in an attempt to control infections. Regional Governments in Yemen and Djibouti the two main entry points in to Yemen have also closed their borders. Passenger travel by road within Yemen will also be limited.  Movement restrictions have been stopped between north and south Yemen.
  • The number of people in need has risen from 21 million in 2015 to 24 million in 2020
  • 1 million people were displaced in 2015 compared to 3.6 million in 2020.
  • Although displacement reduced in 2019, over 12,000 people were displaced from their homes every month.
  • 12 million in 2015 needed food aid, this has increased to a staggering 20 million in 2020
  • 1.2 million people needed shelter in 2015 compared with 6.7 million in 2020.
  • 15.2 million people needed health support in 2015 compared with 19.7 million in 2020.
  • 2.9 million people needed education support in 2015 compared with 4.7 million in 2020.
  • 1. 5 million people needed nutrition support in 2015 compared with to 7.4 million in 2020.
  • 17 million people in Yemen need support with water, sanitation and hygiene.


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Karl Schembri

Regional Media Adviser in the Middle East

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Twitter: @Karl_Schembri