The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis Worsens

On June 2nd, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, addressed a conference aiming to raise $2.4 billion for the increasingly bleak state of affairs in Yemen. He began with a blunt statement: “The situation in Yemen is catastrophic.” He was not exaggerating.

The Saudi-led conference barely managed to raise half of the $2.4 billion target. Lise Grande, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, had warned beforehand that there would be ‘catastrophic cutbacks’ to current aid projects if less than $1.6 billion was raised. Despite Lowcock and Grande’s words, Yemen is underfunded, and woefully vulnerable to Covid-19 ravaging an already severely weakened population. It faces something beyond catastrophe – the consequences are unspeakable and heart-breaking.

We are used to seeing headlines and appeals for aid for Yemen. Since the beginning of civil war in 2015, the country has been torn asunder by a combination of military violence, widespread famine and fatal bouts of disease, including the largest outbreak of cholera ever recorded. Civilian deaths that have been officially verified currently stand at 7,500, but many believe the toll is far higher. Some monitoring groups estimate it at more than 100,000. Furthermore, the secondary effects on public health and the state of medical provision have been disastrous. Estimates suggest that 2 million children suffer from severe malnourishment. To compound matters, there has been an exodus of medical staff from the country. The Economist reports this week that one in six of Yemen’s 333 districts have been left without a single doctor.

The situation in Yemen was already being regularly referred to as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’ It is no wonder, then, that health officials have raised desperate concerns about coronavirus and the acute danger in which it places the country and its 28 million civilians.

Problems within and without

The problems with which Yemen is beset are manifold. Within the country itself, there is severe underreporting of coronavirus cases and not enough testing taking place. As of the May 7th, there are 482 confirmed cases, and 111 deaths – but many think this barely scratches the surface of the reality on the ground. As of the May 30th, 2,678 had been screened for the virus – from a population of 28 million. This is one of the lowest testing rates in the world. By contrast, the fatality rate of recorded cases is alarmingly high at over 20% (the global average is 7%).

There are also political problems regarding transparency and cooperation across conflict lines. The Houthis, the rebel group that has control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, have claimed that the coronavirus is under control in their territory. In The Economist, an unnamed journalist wrote that “doctors who talk about the pandemic are threatened with arrest or worse.” Within Yemen, there is both a serious inability regarding coronavirus testing, as well as active repression of the truth from groups seeking political one-upmanship. There is neither will nor way.

Outside the country, the world is looking the other way. Countries have turned inwards, concentrating on coming out of lockdown and rebooting their economies. It is bitterly illustrative that the country that donated the most money by far at the fundraising conference was Saudi Arabia, active participants in the civil war. Their donation of $500 million is incredibly welcome and necessary, of course – but it is nonetheless governed by an element of national self-interest. It seems countries are unable or unwilling to look beyond their own borders at the current moment.

The roots of the problem, outside and in

Mark Lowcock’s response to the $1.4 billion raised ($1 billion short of the target) was grave. He tweeted: “My message to donors: please pay immediately – it will mean the difference between life & death.” Donors were also told that if enough money was not raised, 30 out of 41 UN programmes in Yemen would have to shut down in the next few weeks. It is worrying that despite such desperate pleas from UN officials and aid organisations, a deficit of $1 billion was left. This epitomizes both the global economic crisis that we are currently experiencing, but also, more concerningly, a whole-scale move inwards from countries around the world. This should be criticized and resisted.

This inwardness is to be expected in part by the extreme pressures placed upon governments by the coronavirus crisis. It is, after all, their responsibility to look after their countries. However, there is a side to a more wilful inwardness that looks uncannily like selfishness and nationalism. Again, political considerations should not be underestimated. Leaders wish to cling to any boosting in ratings that they have seen during lockdowns – or indeed mitigate haemorrhages in public opinion – and there is an implicit perception that now is not that time to be giving money abroad. Or at least, that foreign aid might not win much public favour. This is a problem with both politicians and the electorate.

In Yemen itself, the roots of the problem are almost too obvious to be stated. It is a case study in how war cripples a country and brings it to its knees. Hospitals have been bombed, medical staff have been forced to flee, a whole generation has not been properly fed and is severely malnourished, susceptible to disease. It is, quite simply, nightmarish – beyond catastrophe.


It is patently difficult to see a way forward for Yemen, and the statistics make for grim reading. One area in which change is abundantly necessary is in financial generosity; for countries and donors to have missed the target by $1 billion is unforgiveable in such a time. When the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is hit by the worst pandemic for a century, giving less money is simply not good enough. The political motivation required to instigate this will come from a willingness from people in richer countries to gain some perspective. So many have suffered in the lockdown, all over the world, but this is not the time to focus solely on one’s own wounds. Openness to perspective might create a public scene where generosity and financial sacrifice for the sake of others in greater need would be politically attractive.

On the ground, too, there have been glimmers of hope. Abdullah Al Rabeeah, the supervisor of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, said that aid from Saudi Arabia would be channeled to areas in Houthi control. Amidst reports of Houthi interference with aid packages and attempts at cooperation, this is at least an encouraging sign that aid should be accessible across the lines of conflict.

The many conflicts of interest in Yemen must unite around protecting an incredibly vulnerable population from coronavirus. The logistics of distributing aid will demand collaboration, and one hopes that peace and common ground can begin to ensue. Within the country, then, hope is to be found in administering of aid that can be channeled across zones of conflict, creating dialogue and common ground. On the outside, richer populations desensitized to the suffering of poorer countries need to be re-sensitized, recognizing that there may soon be suffering on a grievous scale hitherto unseen during this crisis. In Mark Lowcock’s words, it is “the difference between life and death.”

Joel Fraser


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