Editorial & Opinion

Conditions in Yemen before the arrival of the coronavirus

“[Coronavirus] gives us two cruel choices: to stay home and die from hunger or go out and die from the disease,” said A’eshah Yahya Dahish a 20-year-old woman from Abs, told my colleagues. Five years ago, U.S. – supported Saudi airstrikes destroyed her home in Haradh, where she had hoped to pursue a career in midwifery. Now in Abs, she
Photo for Conditions in Yemen before the arrival of the coronavirus

Published on September 2, 2020
By David Oppenheimer

“[Coronavirus] gives us two cruel choices: to stay home and die from hunger or go out and die from the disease,” said A’eshah Yahya Dahish a 20-year-old woman from Abs, told my colleagues. Five years ago, U.S. – supported Saudi airstrikes destroyed her home in Haradh, where she had hoped to pursue a career in midwifery. Now in Abs, she has had to give up her education in order to support her ten siblings, her elderly father suffering from diabetes and hypertension, and her mother, who suffers from poor mental health. Recently, she has been preoccupied with the predicament facing her two-year-old brother, Maydan. “Maydan was malnourished in 2019, [so] we took him to hospital where they gave him some medicines [and] then he recovered, thankfully. After the coronavirus spread and our situation worsened, he was only eating bread crumbs mashed with water for either breakfast or dinner beside the lunch with us; that is all we give him. Now he is malnourished again, and I am very worried about him. But we can’t take him to hospital now; he may get infected with corona and die as his immune system is weak.

Conditions in Yemen before the arrival of the coronavirus

Right now, conditions in Yemen are worse than they have been at any time since the Obama administration green lighted the Saudi coalition’s war against Yemen in 2015. Even before the coronavirus came to Yemen, the economy, healthcare infrastructure, ability of governmental entities to function and access to food and water had been devastated by five years of bombing and blockade. Saudi missiles and bombs have been targeting dams, hospitals, food producing factories, health clinics, farms, and food storage facilities. Over half of Yemen’s healthcare facilities have been physically destroyed by these attacks. 

An air and naval blockade of the country has restricted imports of food and medicine. Supplies sent to Yemen, if they are allowed to reach port, sit on docks and warehouses. In the rare cases they are allowed inland, they must reach their destinations over a transportation network that has been blasted to pieces. 

Saudi bombs, often United States made, often dropped from United States manufactured aircraft with the logistical support of the United States military have not only targeted the Yemeni civilian population by destroying their food supply, access to potable water and health care. Weddings, funerals, marketplaces, fishing boats, government buildings, and large gatherings have been targeted and bombed. There have been attacks on crowded civilian targets that are followed up with second strikes aimed at killing the first responders that come to help wounded civilians. The war has displaced 3.6 million people who now live in refugee camps. 

Prior to the war, Yemen had to import 90% of its food and was one of the most water stressed nations in the world. The war has been starving Yemenis to death. Estimates made in late 2018 stated that 85,000 children had died from hunger or preventable disease, one every 10 minutes, since 2016. UNICEF warned that 2.4 million children. A majority go whom are under the age of five, faced acute malnutrition earlier this year, 24 million of Yemen’s 30 million people face food shortages and poor sanitation due to the destruction of water systems have led to major epidemics of swine flue, dengue fever, diphtheria and the greatest cholera epidemic in recorded history, affecting over 1.7 million people and still escalating at a pace of 10,00 cases a week. 

The Yemeni economy is in shambles. Shortages have caused massive inflation, putting the cost of basic supplies beyond the reach of most households. Government workers, including those in the medical field, have not been paid since 2016. Medical care was subsidized by the Yemeni government up through 2011. Now there are no funds available to help people and they have to pay out of pocket, which most Yemenis cannot afford. 

In this environment, access to humanitarian aid is a life and death.

You can’t imagine how desperate people are,” says Hakeem, one of Oxfam’s paid community health volunteers. Displaced from his home by the conflict, Hakeem is living with his seven children in an informal settlement of 45 families in al- Qaflah district, Amran governorate. He is helping to raise awareness and educate his community about the threat of COVID-19 and on how to stay safe from the disease. “I can see them during the night, worried, sad and totally unready to face another day. I try to calm them down and tell them it will be alright. Even with the payments from Oxfam, I am struggling, too. The other day I couldn’t afford to buy milk for my child. He was malnourished two years ago and I took him to a hospital to receive medical care on credit. I couldn’t pay back until now and I can’t follow up on his condition because of that.”

The Trump Administration suspends United States aid to Northern Yemen

In 2019, Congress appropriated $400 million for relief programs in Yemen, most of this targeted for the World Health Organization. None of the money Congress allocated had been disbursed to Yemen in May when President Trump cut all ties to the WHO over the terminology they were using to describe the coronavirus crisis. As a result of these cuts, the WHO had to suspend 80% of their operations. Global funding for Yemen through the UN has evaporated this year. Last year the UN received $3.6 billion in aid for Yemen. As of June it had received 15% of this amount. The World Food Program has had to cut deliveries to Yemen and 75% of UN programs have reduced services or have been closed down entirely. 

In late March, with the threat of coronavirus looming, the United States suspended $73 million in Congressionally allocated USAID (United Stares Agency for International Development) to northern Yemen, where 80% of Yemen’s population lives. USAID , working with NGOs and Food For Peace and United States Foreign Disaster Assistance provides emergency food assistance, medical treatment and vaccination support for children, emergency obstetric services, blankets and household goods for displaced families, and hygiene kits and water treatment supplies to reduce the spread of disease. Partnering with Save the Children and Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee, USAID runs clinics and shelters throughout Yemen.

The Trump administration claimed to be providing alternate funding to fight Covid-19 and allocated $1.7 million, while claiming to continue life-saving assistance in Yemen. On inspection, this has meant small cut-outs for existing cholera outbreak care and some inpatient nutritional programs. Estimates in the spring set the price tag for testing for Covid at $69 million and the cost of PPE at $761 million.

Salem, 45 from Saada, is a father of six. His youngest child is nine months old and is severely acutely malnourished. He said: “We are afraid to go to the hospital because of the virus that is killing people but when we see the threat of death in the eyes of our sick child, we have no choice but to risk it and take him to the hospital, borrowing money just to pay the taxi fees that we can’t afford.

Many families isolate themselves from the coronavirus but what is the point if children are being killed inside their home by air strikes or die because of lack of transportation.

The impact of suspension of USAID to Northern Yemen

First and foremost, the USAID cuts greatly handicapped the ability of Yemenis to combat the coronavirus. How does one prepare for a pandemic while being forced to abandon clean water projects while losing money for programs that had paid to supply power for hospitals and purchase hygiene kits throughout the nation? With no money for those needs where will PPE and testing supplies come from? 

The UN and NGOs have listed numerous consequences of the absence of funding of all sorts, including disruption of the suspension of operations in 189 hospitals and 200 primary care facilities that provide assistance to 250.000 children, leaving them malnourished and without access to healthcare services. The water and hygiene programs for three million people in refugee camps have been disrupted. Oxfam estimates that suspended USAID added to disruption of UN programs will deprive is million Yemenis, half of them children of access to water, sanitation and hygiene services.

NGOs and the UN have not been happy with Houthis interference with and diversion of aid to Northern Yemen. Houthis have interdicted some shipments and distributed materials to their allies rather than to populations to which they have been sent. They have taxed shipments, restricted movement of aid workers at times and have limited the purchasing of local supplies to specific vendors of their choice and have insisted on detailed searches of shipments. 

The Trump has cited these unacceptable abuses by the Houthis as their reason for suspension of all USAID to Northern Yemen, citing “globally accepted humanitarian principles”. But the cynicism and cruelty of this outsized reaction almost matches the pathetic suggestion that $1.7 million in aid can do the work of $73 million. 

Last week, we tried to provide support to an 11-year-old boy who suffered from a head injury after an airstrike hit his house. The family drove for four hours to reach the hospital. The first two days he was able to get some treatment but unfortunately due to the increased admission of COVID-19 patients in the hospital and the severe lack of resources, the child passed away on the third day…”

The cynicism and cruelty of blanket aid suspension while NGOs have negotiated to ensure that help gets through

The Trump administration’s assertion of defending humanitarian principles while leaving an entire nation full of starving immunocompromised people at the mercy of a viral epidemic is incredibly cynical if one considers that the Saudi coalition’s air blockade and the UAE naval blockade have prevented food and medical aid from reaching the country or getting off ships to help the people of Yemen. Conflicts in Southern Yemen, where aid has not been suspended have led to the interdiction of supplies for years but USAID flows there unabated. 

Individual aid agencies and the UN have been able to negotiate progress with the Houthis who have withdrawn a proposed 2% tax on aid and are for the first time allowing biometric tracking on aid deliveries. Some agencies that halted or curtailed deliveries on their own to due to obstruction have resumed providing aid due to improved access and freedom of movement. Oxfam, which does not receive USAID funding in Yemen, as a result of negotiations with local authorities, has been ale to ensure independence and access in order to continue clean water, sanitation and hygiene programs in order to prevent the coronavirus. Meanwhile, USAID continues to deprive other agencies of funding, claiming that Covid-19 funding would be diverted.

The refusal of USAID to alter its approach in the face of the pandemic while alternate strategies have produced compromise and more access and more humanitarian aid reaching civilians that need it, makes it fairly clear that “humanitarian concerns” are not primary in the minds of the Trump administration. It is much more likely that this is part of the overall Trump administration approach to “diplomacy” that starves civilian populations for geopolitical gains. Houthi troops and leaders will not be deprived of food and medicine by the suspension of USAID. Yemeni civilians will be. “Its the same logic of sanctions where you try to make the people under enemy rule scream in the hopes that it will create unrest,” according to Erik Sperling of Just Foreign Policy. “They’ve never figured out any sanctions yet that cut half the food to the people of the country. This is on another level.”

The hellish status quo in Yemen that must be changed by Congress

The coronavirus has spread virtually unimpeded throughout all of Yemen, both in the Houthi north and in the Saudi and UAE controlled regions of the south, There are no reliable statistics on the number of people affected as the governments of all these regions have neither the will nor the capability of recording and reporting the statistics, We do have eyewitness reports and ariel photographs of mass graves being dug, however. Famine and disease have left the population immunocompromised and estimates from the small regions where there is accurate recording of cases and their outcomes suggest that the fatality rate for those that contract the virus is somewhere between 18 and 25%, an astoundingly high rate. Frontline medical workers seem to be dying at a rate much greater than that. With over half of Yemen’s hospitals and medical facilities destroyed and the rest vastly underfunded, those that are still operating do not have the capacity to treat Covid-19, lacking PPE and adequate testing facilities. There are probably no more than 700 intensive care beds and 500 ventilators in the functioning hospitals. Twenty percent of Yemen’s 333 districts have no medical doctors. Private medical care is too expensive for most Yemenis and of course, people without access to clean water, soap and medicine without access to NGO assistance cannot sanitize their environments. 

As the coronavirus spreads, threatening to double the death tool from five years of war, disease and starvation in the next six months, the compounded effects of the Saudi blockade and indications from the UN and the United States that Saudi bombings of civilians will lead to no international consequences, have made conditions even worse. In July, Yemeni officials warned that internet services in the country might be shutting down due to a lack of petroleum in the country. Currently 19 ships laden with oil, some sitting in port for over four months, have not been permitted too unload. Saudi air raids have stepped up rapidly and they continue to target food depots and large public gatherings. Hospitals, clinics. Wells and water tanks have been receiving special attention during the pandemic from Saudi planes.

The battering of Yemen’s dam and irrigation infrastructure and the financial straits of even the Saudi coalition controlled areas of the South left the nation vulnerable to flooding. Heavy rains this spring and again this summer have caused massive flooding, creating at least another 100,000 refugees. Recent reports of a possible return of polio, absent from Yemen for years (just as diphtheria had not been seen in Yemen for 30 years prior to the war) have added to the tribulations of the Yemeni people. 

“These airstrikes destroyed family homes, with at least ten children reported amongst the dead. This marks three mass civilian killings in a single month. Our teams are on the ground with food and shelter kits, helping those lucky enough to flee.

“While Covid-19 decimates Yemen, bombings by the Saudi-led coalition have reached an intensity not seen in two years and missiles fired by Ansarallah into Saudi Arabia have also increased. Civilian casualties have trebled; vehicles, markets and homes have all been hit.

“This is a blatant disregard for the laws of war. An immediate independent investigation is required, and those responsible must be held to account. The UN Security Council must act.” Norwegian Refugee Council General Secretary Jan Egeland, July 15, 2020.

US complicity in the most heinous acts remains

On July 16th at least 31 women and children were killed and dozens injured when at least one Saudi warplane dropped a bomb on a wedding party in a private residence in Al-Jawf, the oil rich province that has been the site of intense fighting this year. One of the injured was a 15 day old baby. The wedding was publicly announced and the Saudi Coalition has been informed by the family hosting the wedding of the time and place of the ceremony to avoid an attack. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths called for an investigation of the attack, which came just weeks after the UN had taken the Saudi regime off its list of “child killers.”

The attack two days earlier described above by Jan Egelund also involved the dropping of a bomb on a private residence. The bomb used in that attack was a Raytheon Mark-82, jointly manufactured by United States weapons companies Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. The MK 82 has been dropped on a funeral hall, schools, hospitals, factories, community centers and historic buildings. The Yemenis refer to it as the “stupid bomb” due to the extent of the collateral damage it causes, The MK-82 was used in the school bus attack in August, 2019 that killed 40 school children under the age of 15 most of whom were under ten years old. 

The outrage over the bus attack along with the killing of Jamal Kashoggi, a dissident Saudi reporter working for the Washington Post in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul galvanized the Democrats in Congress to try to stop the United States participation in the Saudi war on Yemen.

The crux of the matter: Our congressional legislators must do more than wait for next year to help the people of Yemen

Before this was Trump’s war, the Saudi coalition war against Yemen was Obama’s war. And our Congressional delegation for the most part was not opposed to it. This was crystal clear in March of 2018 when both of Rhode Island’s Democratic senators voted to NOT discuss reviewing the Trump administration’s war in Yemen or work towards asserting Congress’s power to declare war by passing a war powers act for the war or a review of how the Saudis were using United States supplies weapons and logistical support. Senator Whitehouse defended the United States’ cooperation with the Saudis as a way to ensure humanitarian practices were followed; Senator Reed noted how United States logistics were useful in defining civilian establishments that should not be attacked. These assertions were made when the evidence was clear that the Saudis were quite probably using United States logistical aid to target civilians; the United States was assisting in the commission of war crimes not preventing them. Senator Whitehouse’s statements followed the line that the Saudis themselves had been using in their propaganda. They were claiming to be providing humanitarian aid after supposedly lifting the blockade while they kept the blockade in force, destroyed the transportation infrastructure of Houthi held areas and continued to attack farms, food storage areas, and factories that processed food. Humanitarian aid does not describe an air and sea blockade that prevents medicine from reaching a nation in the midst of a cholera epidemic.

After the Khashoggi murder, Rhode Island’s peace community, with assistance from Massachusetts Peace Action and Just Foreign Policy rallied to put pressure on Rhode Island’s Senators, who changed their opinion of the humanitarian nature of United States participation in the war. Senator Reed’s speech on the Senate floor specifically noting that the possible advantages United States participation might have had in terms of humanitarian goals had not been met was probably the most specific and pointed critique not only of the Trump administration’s pursuit of the war and weapons sales to the Saudis and UAE, but of the entire way the war was being conducted. Senator Whitehouse, following the approach he had taken with the power plant, was to not retract or qualify any defenses made of a bad policy. 

All of Rhode Island’s Congressional representatives voted in favor of the historic war powers act for Yemen that would have led to the end of United States participation of assistance to the Saudi coalition without Congress’s express consent as well as bills curtailing the sale of most offensive weapons to the Saudi coalition in March of 2017 and voted again for these measures in the failed attempt to override Trump’s veto, Public pressure nationwide had moved the Democratic leadership to oppose a war and reassert Congress’s constitutional role in matters of war and peace. 

But as we have seen, all of the things that were wrong with that war continue and the suffering of the people of Yemen has only intensified. In the face of this, short of the votes tin the Senate to override another Trump veto (and with any theoretical joint resolution that might be crafted so as to be exempt from being vetoed sure to face a legal course that could last years) there seems no avenue open to stopping the war before the next Congress is elected. 

But this is not an excuse to give up on trying to help the people of Yemen, and clearly, as the heads of the major relief and aid NGOs have made explicit in their communications, the best way to make an immediate impact to help sick and starving Yemenis is to lift the suspension of USAID Congress has allocated for Yemen as soon as possible. This decision lies with the state department and to a lesser degree on USAID itself, which, like so many governmental departments is now being headed by an interim director who has not had his appointment confirmed by the Senate.

What our legislators have tried to do (or refused to do)

Some members of Congress have been putting pressure on the state department and USAID to account for their actions and decisions. Even before the suspension of aid in March, Senator Reed, as the ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee joined Senate Minority Leader Schumer and Senator Menendez,, the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed Secretary of State Pompeo to pursue diplomacy with the Houthis, noting that the Saudi/UAE was preventing supplies from reaching Yemenis in need. They called for opening the major airports in Sa’ana and expressed concerns about rumors that the administration might cut off humanitarian aid to Yemen.

Following aid, the Democratic chairs of both the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committee sent a strong letter to Secretary Pompeo and the now departed director of USAID explicitly requesting a lifting of suspension of aid. The local significance of this letter will be addressed shortly.

In May, when the suspension had not been lifted and with the threat of Covid even more imminent Senator Reed co-signed a bi-partisan letter (one Republican, and the Democratic Senators from Vermont and Delaware also signed) that did not explicitly ask for the lifting of the suspension, but cleverly tried to pin the state department down on what aid had been sent, whether or not changes in the Houthis attitude towards access as a result of UN negotiations had been taken into account and whether or not other aid beside USAID ticketed for Yemen had been employed. (Time revealed that the money State had promised went only to southern Yemen; this aid did nothing to prevent spreading famine in southern Yemen in the spring and summer).

Throughout the winter and spring, delegations of concerned Rhode Island activists had been meeting (virtually) with aides to both Senator Reed and Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Langevin. Through Action Corps meetings with Armed Services Committee aides to Reed and Langevin January, to delegations of Rhode Islanders from Action Corps, FCNL, Pax Christi, and RIAC with the foreign policy advisors to the Senators and Congressman Langevin, requests were made that our legislators follow up on any available means to help Yemenis get aid. We specifically asked the advisors to Whitehouse and Langevin to step up and make public statements about the situation in Yemen and to follow up on the path already taken by Senator Reed and directly address the need to lift the suspension of USAID. Our feeling was that besides putting pressure on state (particularly if numerous lobbying groups throughout the nation pursued similar tactics) bringing the issue before a local audience via a public statement or even a tweet would help raise consciousness on this matter, despite the pandemic at home and the distractions of the Trump circus. (This preceded the murder of George Floyd.) 

This didn’t seem like particularly difficult asks. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee had already made one effort to get the aid restored. So Congressman Langevin would have been taking the party line on this issue, Senator Reed had already set the template by his actions regarding USAID that Senator Whitehouse could have followed. Unfortunately, after what were genial and fairly lengthy discussions, neither office chose to take any action to act and did not offer an explanation for their choices not to do so. Action Corps has received similar results Republican Senators in deeply red states, This was disappointing. 

(Our delegations did not have any constituents from Congressman Cicilline’s House district. Congressman Cicilline has been actively demanding an accounting of the use of United States made weaponry in Yemen and has co-signed one of the most significant alternate efforts of getting aid to developing nations facing the coronavirus that will be discussed below.) 

As this is being written, Senator Gillibrand’s office is preparing yet another appeal to state. Aides from Senator Reed’s office have notified us that they will be joining this effort, Additionally, a second effort to get relief aid, not specifically to Yemen but to many low and middle income nations that need funds to battle the coronavirus and to help their economies stabilize in the wake of shutdowns and recession, has been included in a House omnibus finance bill. This measure will get money equivalents into the hands of nations that are short on liquidity through a release of Special Drawing Rights by the IMF. Trump’s treasury department is blocking this, at the moment, despite the fact that this has universal support from both progressive and conservative economists and politicians and bankers, including the IMF’s own advisory board. It is important to note that unlike IMF loans that put onerous restrictions on the economies of nations that get loans from the IMF, SDR release comes with no conditions, interest or austerity measures. Congressman Cicilline co-signed this bill and Senator Reed is one of the original sponsors of this measure.

What we can do

There are two clear courses of action people can take to help the people of Yemen. The first is to send money to the aid organizations that continue to offer services to the people of Yemen, despite aid cuts and the dangers of operating in war zones, despite obstruction from local governments under the control of both sides and despite the logistical challenge in getting materials into the country during a blockade and to remote destinations in a nation whose transportation infrastructure has been bombed to smithereens. This link gives an extensive list of organizations that can provide help.

Personally, I recommend Yemen Relief and Reconstruction and Oxfam, both of which have people on the ground in Yemen providing food, hygiene, water and medical relief not only in larger cities, but in remote villages and refugee camps. 

Secondly, call Congressman Langevin’s office in Washington, DC (202-225-2735) and Senator Whitehouse’s DC office (202-224-2921) to tell them they need to do what they can to help the people of Yemen and one obvious thing to do is to join in the effort to get USAID restored for Yemen. An ever increasing number of representatives are joining this lobbying effort; it is supported by Democratic leadership. There really is little excuse for inaction. The more people that call, the more likely it is that we will get a response. We will need to impress our reluctant legislators that what happens in Yemen matters to us, particularly if a New Democratic administration comes in and drags its feet on getting the United States out of the war on Yemen. 

Senator Reed needs to hear from us as well. (DC office 202-224-4642). While he has been pro-active on getting aid restoration and on global pandemic relief, he has not delivered in one area where he plays a crucial role as ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Last year, the Democratic House included many measures into their version of the NDAA (the defense spending bill) that would have forced Trump to either veto a Pentagon budget or accept these measures as law. Among them were a war powers act for Yemen and cutting off the sale of offensive weapon to the Saudis. There were other great measures in that bill as well, including preventing the development of low yield nuclear weapons that would make the use of nuclear weapons more likely, a war powers act for Iran and sunsetting on the authorization of military force that followed 9/11 that has been used as blank check for conducting war all over Africa and Asia without Congressional permission. None of these measures were included in the Senate version of the bill and in conference between the House and Senate, none of these measures went into the final bill. This year there are fewer good measures in the House version of the NDAA but the measures on Yemen are in the House bill. We need Senator Reed, as one of the four negotiators in conference to stand up for these measures, measures that have passed both the House and Senate already but have been vetoed by Trump. If these measures are included in the final defense spending bill, Trump will have to accept them or he will not have a defense spending bill. Trump has been willing to play chicken with Congress over this. To this point, the Democrats in the Armed Services Committee have not, deferring to the tradition of “always coming up with a bill” or fearing that they will be blamed for not supporting the troops. We need to thank Senator Reed for what he has done so far, but urge him to put his duty to the military in a different light, protesting it from participating in war crimes and a de facto genocide while standing up for Congress’s constitutional role deciding whether or not the United States goes to war, rather than deferring to an overreaching (and bloodthirsty, dictator loving) executive.

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