Covid-19 set to take ‘terrifying’ toll on war-torn Yemen

WHO forecasts coronavirus will kill 42,000 and infect most of 28 million population

Yemen’s desperate battle to contain the coronavirus intensifies as contagion spreads throughout the south of the country and takes hold in the north.

The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has reported more than 128 Covid-19 infections and 20 deaths. These numbers do not reflect the extent of the virus’s conquest of Yemen’s starving and ailing men, women and children, 80 per cent of whom depend on foreign food and medical aid.

The World Health Organisation predicts the virus will have a "terrifying" impact on Yemenis, with 42,000 dying and the vast majority of 28 million infected.

Local officials say health facilities, halved since the country’s war began in 2015, cannot cope and UN agencies warn that their main assistance programmes will close unless donors deliver.


At least $2 billion (€1.84 billion) is needed between now and the end of the year. If appeals for funds fail, the WHO could cut its services by 80 per cent. While the WHO has provided limited supplies of protective gear for medics, tests and medicine, severe shortages remain.

Cholera and pneumonic plague

Stipends for 100,000 medical staff have already been scrapped, although there is an outbreak of cholera, which is endemic in Yemen and continues to rage. There have been 113,000 suspected cases since January. Pneumonic plague and chikungunya virus killed 623 people in the port city of Aden during the first two weeks of May. Aden has been declared a “disaster zone”.

Sultana Begum of the Norwegian Refugee Council told the al-Monitor news site: "Covid-19 is a double disaster on top of a very difficult humanitarian situation. What we really need to be doing in a time like this is scaling up aid, rather than scaling back."

On the ground, Yemen is gripped by two wars. The five-year conflict between the Saudis and northern Houthi rebels continues while fighting escalates between Saudi-backed troops and southern separatists who seek independence from the north. Saudi Arabia’s Emirati partner in the war has pulled out its troops, leaving Saudi forces on their own.

Saudi funding

The separatist Emirati-backed transitional council has taken over Aden, the seat of the Saudi-supported government which, reportedly, has lost Saudi funding. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthis in 2014, ministers and officials have been told they must pay their own expenses while in exile in Riyadh or leave.

Following the fall in revenues due to the collapse of the price of oil and the loss of income from pilgrims barred from Mecca and Medina as a result of the coronavirus, Saudi Arabia has cut its overall budget and is expected to continue reductions in defence spending begun in 2016 despite the war in Yemen.

New cost-cutting measures may force Riyadh to seek an exit to a $100 billion deadlocked war without achieving the Saudi war aim of returning Mr Hadi to power.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times