COVID-19 devastates already desperate, ravaged Yemen

The country is facing the world's worst humanitarian and development crisis

By Auke Lootsma, Resident Representative, UNDP Yemen 

ADEN, Yemen—When COVID-19 began sweeping the globe in March, I found myself traveling outside Yemen where I have worked since 2016. With the airports in the region quickly closing, I did everything in my power to get back.  

I knew it was only a matter of time until the pandemic reached Yemen, too.

In 2016, the average Yemeni lived on an incredibly low US $1.8 a day, and the unemployment spiked above 60 per cent. The impacts of COVID-19 can worsen the situation.

On 10 April, the first case in Yemen was reported. Since then, COVID-19 has been spreading unmitigated across the country. When the news was announced, my colleagues and I had a sinking feeling: It was clear to us that Yemen would be affected at a wider, faster, and deadlier rate than anywhere else.

That is because after nearly six years of war, 80 percent of Yemen’s 30-million population—more than 24 million people—depend on humanitarian assistance to survive. Millions are severely malnourished and weakened by diseases such as dengue, malaria, and cholera. They suffer from pre-existing co-morbidities and are uniquely vulnerable to the worst and deadliest impacts of COVID-19. 

Yemen is already the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis. COVID-19 is ready to deliver a knock-out punch.

In response to an increasing need for healthcare protective equipment, UNDP Social Protection for Community Resilience​ is supporting female community initiatives to produce masks and coveralls locally, helping healthcare staff to perform their job safely.

Just how quickly and rampant the virus is actually spreading here is unknown, because of the lack of testing and reporting. The UN is estimating that the percentage of those who die from COVID-19 in Yemen is as high as 30 percent–well above anywhere else on the planet. To put this in perspective, the average fatality rate is seven percent and in many more advanced countries it hovers around three percent. On top of everything else that Yemen is experiencing, it can now also add the highest unofficial death rate to COVID-19 in the world.

I have worked with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Yemen for four years and have seen the country suffer unimaginably from the war and other devastating epidemics. But I knew this would be different. Yemen’s healthcare system is ravaged. According to our partners at the World Bank, there are three doctors and seven hospital beds per 10,000 people.

And now, because of the war, only around half of the health facilities are operational. Two-thirds of Yemenis have no access to basic healthcare, and half lack access to running water that would allow essential handwashing to keep from spreading the disease.  

The UN estimates that the percentage of those who will die from COVID-19 in Yemen is as high as 30 percent–well above anywhere else on the planet.

Even among those who can access healthcare, many are not seeking it now for fear of stigmatization, violence, community ostracization, and unqualified healthcare workers. In short, we are seeing that Yemenis would rather die at home than seek care. It is heartbreaking.

But even beyond severity of COVID-19’s current impact, we must not forget the huge consequences this will have, even after the pandemic is under control. Yemen will continue to face socio-economic fallout from COVID-19 for potentially generations to come if we do not do anything now.

Remittances from Yemeni diaspora, which normally total more than US$ 3.5 billion annually and were vital to the survival of millions, used to regularly pour into the country. But now, because of the oil crisis and with many Yemeni expatriates affected by the drop in oil revenues, remittances are projected to decrease by up to 70 percent. This will literally translate into millions becoming poorer and having no access to basic lifesaving needs such as food and water.

The rising cost of basic items makes food and clean water out of reach for millions.

As an international community, we have the moral obligation to support Yemen now to keep it from going over the cliff. To help do this, the UN—with UNDP leading—is taking urgent and immediate action. Our integrated solutions help tackle the many health, social, economic and environmental challenges connected to the crisis, helping advance progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

We are working to shore up the public health sector by working to equip COVID-19 isolation centers with vital equipment such as solar energy panels. This allows the key healthcare facilities to function even with the chronic lack of electricity in the country.

Our awareness-raising programmes help communities understand COVID-19, protect themselves and lessen stigmatization. This aims to empower people to seek the healthcare they need for COVID-19 and chronic diseases today, creating a healthy population for a better future tomorrow.

We are working to empower small and medium-sized businesses to build businesses that address COVID-19 personal protection now but also to transition into a viable post-COVID-19 business too.

At the same time, we are creating jobs right now so people can make up for missed income due to job loss or decreased family remittances. This will allow them to take care of their families today.

UNDP provides cash-for-work and employment opportunities to help Yemenis rebuild their communities brick-by-brick, road-by-road.

We are taking action, yes, but more is needed.

In June 2020, the Yemen international pledging conference failed to fill the huge funding gaps that will help us to address COVID-19 and other needs throughout the country. Compared with 2019, funding levels dropped by 65 percent.

Yemen is already the world’s worst humanitarian and development crisis. We must wake up to the fact that right now is not a time to turn our backs on the country. We cannot leave Yemen behind while it suffers in silence. The people of Yemen cannot wait.

 Mr. Auke Lootsma has been serving in Yemen as the Resident Representative since February 2019. He began his tenure in Sana’a as Country Director in August 2016.

Mr. Lootsma’s career with UNDP began in 1994. He has served as the Country Director in Rwanda; Senior Recovery Advisor in Ukraine; Deputy Country Director (Programme) in Sudan; and, Deputy Resident Representative (Programme) in Uganda. He holds a Master of Science in Business Administration and Development Economics.

Photo: UNDP Yemen
Twitter:  @AukeLootsma @UNDPYemen @SDGintegration