Yemen Confronts Coronavirus: Challenges in Combating the Epidemic and the Impact on the Conflict

EPC | 04 Apr 2020

While no cases of coronavirus have been recorded yet in Yemen, it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches the country, at which point it is expected to spread widely and catastrophically. Such an epidemic is also expected to have political repercussions, with some parties, such as the United Nations, seeing it as an opportunity to bring an end to the conflict in the country.

This paper examines how coronavirus is expected to impact Yemen, in particular its effect on the political scene and the attempts by the international community to use it as an opportunity to put an end to the five-year-long conflict in the country.

Background

Although, at the most recent briefing, the representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that no cases of coronavirus had yet been recorded in Yemen, there remains a risk that the virus will spread to the country. The legitimate authorities and the Houthis have, asymmetrically, taken many of the preventive measures adopted by other countries around the world[1]. They have also secured medical equipment and supplies, and have made numerous preparations to confront the virus[2].

Nonetheless, it cannot be said the situation is entirely under control. According to experts and the authorities, the preparations and preventive measures taken thus far are not sufficient to prevent the virus from entering the country or to combat it once it has arrived. They predict that, if the virus reaches Yemen, it will lead to a massive explosion in the number of infections — on a disastrous scale, according to the WHO — owing to the following factors:

  1. Rapid, silent disease transmission.
  2. The shortage of food, medicine, and clean water.
  3. The weakness of the healthcare system, given that, in its current state, the health sector cannot even provide a normal level of service, never mind providing specific services to prevent and control an epidemic. Even before the war, the health sector was weak; it has since lost a further 50% of its operating capacity. The infrastructure is old and inadequate[3], and there is a shortage of physicians and nursing staff. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen has stated that it will be impossible to implement social and physical distancing and self-isolation measures in the country’s already overcrowded healthcare facilities.
  4. The lack of financial resources available, or capable of being mobilized, to combat the epidemic.
  5. Political and administrative factors, such as the division of power and poor governance. Thus far, for example, the two parties to the conflict have shirked their responsibilities. Although confronting the epidemic will require joint action and coordination, there have not yet been any signs, with the exception of enthusiastic statements to the media, that either party is coordinating with the other. The war in Yemen is wasting available potential and impeding the work of healthcare facilities, and it continues to cause large-scale displacement. Some 3.3 million individuals are estimated to live in unsanitary camps in the country, which would be an ideal environment to allow the disease to spread.
  6. Social factors, such as the lack of community awareness regarding the dangers of the virus and the general state of apathy. As the majority of the population lives in rural areas, it is unlikely that they will all adhere to any instructions given. For example, numerous mosques in government-held areas did not follow the order to suspend prayers, and the directors of various branches of the Ministry of Awqaf across the governorates failed to implement the decision, as a result of which the Ministry was obliged to issue closure orders.

In its current state, therefore, Yemen is the ideal environment for an epidemic, as supported by the fact that it is currently considered an incubator for various other epidemics, such as dengue fever and cholera. In 2018, Yemen suffered the world’s largest outbreak of cholera, which claimed thousands of lives.

Political repercussions: will coronavirus put an end to the war?

The epidemic will likely have an impact on the conflict, given the existing and expected repercussions at the local, regional, and international levels, and in particular given its potential impact on the economy and the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Already weakened as a result of the war, the economic situation is only expected to deteriorate further[4]. Recession and turmoil are expected to affect commercial markets and movements, leading to price rises, a drop in the value of the currency, and a decline in government revenues. Other factors will exacerbate the situation, such as the fall in oil prices, sales of which, although limited, remain an important part of government revenue in Yemen.

The severe humanitarian crisis in Yemen is also expected to worsen. Apart from the expected large number of infections, an epidemic would hinder relief operations, on which a large proportion of the population depends. As Yemen relies almost entirely on food imports, there are fears that the country will experience a food crisis as a result of high food prices and import costs, particularly if exporters restrict sales and importers purchase more than they need. Global prices for some major commodities, such as rice and sugar, have already begun to rise.

Coronavirus as a brake/trigger for conflict

A coronavirus epidemic in Yemen has the potential to curb the conflict. Many people are concerned that Yemen may experience a serious epidemic and subsequent health disaster, which would put significant pressure on both parties to the conflict. They, along with the international community, will have a moral and financial burden to bear, given the economic and humanitarian repercussions of such an epidemic. In particular, an epidemic would place significant pressure on the resources of both parties to the conflict and would lead the international community to increase the pressure placed on them. It is also theoretically possible that the spread of the virus will limit the number of fighters on the ground and will hinder their ability to move around and engage in combat.

It is possible, however, that an epidemic would further fuel the conflict. The Houthis, for example, see the global preoccupation with confronting the pandemic as an opportunity to make rapid military gains on the ground. In recent days, Houthi forces have made widespread advances and have conducted numerous missile attacks against Ma’rib and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the epidemic provides them with an opportunity to blackmail humanitarian and relief organizations, restrict their activities, and thus obtain more resources. The Houthis are also attempting, albeit coyly, to exploit public fears to recruit fighters, on the pretext that the battlefront is the best place to avoid contracting the virus and that it is more honorable to die in combat than to die of the disease at home. Most notably, they are also promoting the belief that coronavirus is an American biological weapon that must be overcome.

Nonetheless, many people feel that the potential for a coronavirus epidemic in the country and the fears of such an epidemic provide a perfect opportunity to put an end to the fighting, establish a truce, and resolve important issues related to the conflict. The threat of an epidemic is expected to push the government and the Houthis towards cooperation, particularly as both parties claim to have tired of the conflict. Such cooperation would be the first step in building confidence, which could ultimately lead to a peaceful resolution.

Despite all these considerations, however, the parties to the conflict do not seem to share any awareness of the impact that such an epidemic could have on the country and its future, nor do they realize what an opportunity the situation presents to put an end to the conflict and to bring peace. This is apparent in their politicized approach to the issue, their reluctance to release prisoners and detainees, and, most importantly, their ambiguous and evasive stance on international efforts to stop the fighting.

Politicized engagement

Both sides to the conflict have handled the situation in a highly politicized manner. The Houthis have echoed Iran’s rhetoric and promoted the conspiracy that the coronavirus is an American plot. The group’s leader himself expressed this belief, adding that the arrival of coronavirus in Yemen would be treated “as a hostile act”. Mahdi al-Mashat, head of the de facto Houthi authority in Sana’a, has said that he will hold what he refers to as “the countries of aggression, primarily America” responsible if the virus enters Yemen, and has accused the coalition of obstructing Houthi measures to close all ports to prevent the spread of the virus. He has also claimed that Saudi Arabia is deporting Yemeni nationals in order to place pressure on border crossings and increase the likelihood that the virus will enter the country. The domestic parties to the conflict have used the opportunity to accuse one another of exposing the country to the dangers of an epidemic and of covering up cases of infection in the areas under one other’s control[5].

Prisoners and detainees 

In light of the global pandemic and the potential spread of coronavirus in Yemen, humanitarian and human rights organizations have increased the pressure on both parties to the conflict to release the estimated 16,000 prisoners and detainees currently in custody. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, among others, has warned about the potential spread of coronavirus among prisoners and detainees and has called for measures to be taken to facilitate their release order to prevent the virus from spreading.

The parties to the conflict have shown a mixed response to this pressure. In a statement, the Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that the government was willing to release prisoners, and called for the implementation without delay of the deal reached recently in Jordan. For their part, the Houthis have announced the formation of a committee to examine the conditions in which “prisoners” are kept and to develop a plan for the release of insolvent prisoners and prisoners of conscience who have not yet been sentenced or who are not being held in connection with criminal offences. They have made no mention of prisoners held for fighting in the conflict, however.

Aside from the humanitarian and moral aspects, the release of prisoners and detainees would serve peace efforts and would be an important step in building confidence between the parties to the conflict. Despite the promises and pledges made, however, neither party has yet released any prisoners or detainees, nor is there any indication that either party is taking any real steps to release their prisoners. Despite signing an agreement in Amman in February 2020 regarding the release of certain prisoners, neither party has yet implemented any part of the agreement.

International efforts to stop the fighting

The United Nations appears to believe that there is a genuine chance to put an end to the conflict in Yemen. On March 23, the Secretary-General called on the parties to the conflict to immediately cease all hostilities and to focus on achieving “a negotiated political settlement”. The UN special envoy has echoed this sentiment. For its part, the European Union has called on the parties to the conflict to heed international calls for a ceasefire. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has said that the EU expects the parties to engage constructively with the UN special envoy in order to put in place the confidence-building mechanisms required to achieve that goal.

The Houthis, the legitimate government, the Southern Transitional Council, and the anti-Houthi forces on the west coast have all welcomed the call for a ceasefire. In a statement, the government asserted that, “given the political, economic, and health situation in Yemen, we need to put an end to all forms of escalation and to join global efforts to confront the epidemic.” Through a spokesperson, the Arab coalition announced its support for international efforts and for the government’s decision. Mahdi Al-Mashat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, also welcomed international efforts, stressing that the Houthis were fully ready to “open up to all efforts and initiatives”.

On March 27, the UN special envoy called on the parties concerned to hold an urgent meeting to discuss their declared commitment to implement a ceasefire, in the hope that such a meeting will lead to a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. The envoy is attempting to secure the cooperation of all parties to develop a plan that includes confidence-building measures. UN officials hope to be able to use such a plan as a basis from which to launch a political process and peace talks to put an end to the conflict.

It remains unlikely that a ceasefire will be reached, however, given the positions and policies announced by both parties, in particular the Houthis. A ceasefire would require an expression of goodwill and the willingness to make concessions that both parties have long refused to make, which is unlikely to happen. The parties’ statements welcoming the Secretary-General’s call and agreeing to put an end to the fighting may therefore be no more than another form of media manipulation.

The government, meanwhile, is afraid that the Houthis will use any new truce as an opportunity to storm Ma’rib city. It appears convinced that the Houthis will never commit to anything; consequently, even if it were to agree to certain measures, it would not ultimately be bound by them. This may be why the government was swift to welcome the special envoy’s invitation to hold a meeting to discuss steps to end the fighting, whereas the Houthis have not yet given any indication of whether they will accept or reject the invitation.

The Houthis have a number of conditions of their own that must be met before they will cease combat and engage in dialogue, namely that the government must stop all military operations, end its control over the ports, reopen Sana’a airport, and pay salaries[6]. Despite welcoming the calls for a ceasefire, the Houthis have continued to escalate both the intensity and the breadth of their military activities. Right after publically welcoming the international appeals for a ceasefire, they carried out large-scale attacks against Ma’rib and Al-Jawf, in addition to claiming to have carried out ballistic missile and drone attacks primarily against Saudi territories and interests. Having demonstrated their determination to escalate the conflict, the Houthi leader, in a speech on March 27, stated that the group was prepared to carry out a series of surprises for which the coalition forces would not be prepared, and called on his supporters to continue supporting such “victories”.

The Houthis’ continued escalation of military activities threatens to undermine current opportunities and international efforts, to the extent that even the special envoy has described these activities as alarming and disappointing. Furthermore, there is a real possibility that such escalation will lead to large-scale military conflict.

On the whole, there are no indications that international appeals and efforts to use the potential coronavirus epidemic in Yemen to put an end to the conflict are having any success. Significant international support and continued firm pressure on all parties to the conflict is required if success is to be achieved, and yet it is unlikely without the approval and support of regional sponsors of the conflict. While UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his special envoy will likely manage to gain the support of the coalition States that support the government, Tehran will continue to hold all the cards, and it is clear that Iran wishes to make engagement on the matter of a ceasefire conditional on the demands set forth by the Houthis[7].

Conclusion

Although no cases of coronavirus have yet been recorded in Yemen, it is still possible that the virus will reach the country. Given current conditions in the country, the virus is expected to spread catastrophically if it arrives. Although the United Nations is attempting to use the potential epidemic as an opportunity to stop the fighting, indications suggest that such efforts are unlikely to be successful without strong international intervention.

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[1] Key steps taken thus far include: controlling entry points into the country; suspending flights; setting up quarantines; conducting preventive spraying; closing schools and universities; closing wedding venues and certain busy markets, leisure venues, and restaurants; reducing working hours; and moving khat markets to open areas.

[2] Measures have been taken to introduce testing, install thermal cameras, provide training for medical personnel, establish rapid response teams in the districts, increase the readiness of emergency rooms, and invite doctors, technicians, health experts, and all other related professions to volunteer their services in preparation for combating the virus.

[3] There are only two laboratories capable of conducting testing, for example. The WHO is taking steps to open a third laboratory and to ensure that there is a quarantine hospital in each district. In addition, with funding from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the WHO is airlifting medical products and devices into the country to overcome shortages.

[4] On March 24, the International Monetary Fund announced that many countries will suffer a significant decline in economic growth later in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and that countries ravaged by war, such as Yemen, will face particular difficulties.

[5] The government and its supporters have accused the Houthis of covering up cases and of exposing the country to the virus by receiving members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The leader of the Houthis, meanwhile, has accused the coalition of covering up infections in certain areas under its control, and has said that his sources have confirmed that the virus has spread widely throughout Midi region on the western coast.

[6] These conditions were presented to the UN special envoy by the leader of the group, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, who also demanded direct dialogue with the States involved in the coalition before the Houthis will engage in dialogue with the government (pro-Houthi news agency Saba’, March 24, 2020).

[7] On March 27, 2020, the spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, stated that, while his country welcomed and supported the Secretary-General’s proposal, it believed that “if [the proposal] is accompanied by practical steps taken by the coalition in this regard and by the lifting of the siege against Yemen, it could be an important step in preventing the deaths of thousands of innocents and in paving the way for peace and stability.”

 

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