War-torn Yemen records first case of coronavirus

Yemenis at major risk of infection in country that has lost half its hospitals to bombing

War-devastated Yemen on Friday confirmed its first case of coronavirus in government-controlled Hadramut province, where the emergency council for Covid-19 declared the patient was stable and receiving care.

The World Health Organisation has warned that Yemenis, 80 per cent of whom depend on foreign aid, are at maximum risk of infection and death.

Widespread deprivation, water shortages, and inadequate sanitation plaguing the region’s poorest country have soared during the five-year war there. Half Yemen’s hospitals have been destroyed by bombing and shelling and medical staff complain of the lack of protective equipment and medicine.

The authorities are conserving stocks until the arrival of WHO supplies.


Confirmation of the first case of the virus coincided with an announcement by World Food Programme that it will halve food deliveries to rebel Houthi-controlled regions of Yemen due to lack of funding.

From next week families will receive aid every other month rather than monthly after some donors suspended contributions over concern that Houthi forces have clamped controls over humanitarian operations. At least 80 per cent of 12 million Yemenis receiving food baskets live in Houthi-controlled areas.

The cut "couldn't come at a worse time with the coronavirus threatening," UN Yemen representative Lise Grande told the BBC.

These two dark developments follow the launch of Saudi Arabia’s unllateral two-week ceasefire, which has been proposed as a route to peace talks with the Houthis. They have responded by accusing the Saudis of continuing air and ground operations as well as blockading ships carrying food and fuel bound for the Houthi-held north.

Deadlocked war

The Covid-19 threat to Yemen's poor, malnourished and disease-prone 28 million people could provide a humanitarian exit from the deadlocked war for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom cannot afford to continue a conflict that has cost $100 billion over the past five years.

Saudi Arabia's main source of revenue has fallen dramatically due to low oil prices, a ban on foreign pilgrims visiting holy sites, and the projected postponement of the annual Hajj. Riyadh has 2,795 coronavirus cases, including 150 royals. It has had 41 deaths to date.

Convinced that they are winning the war, the Houthis appear reluctant to halt strategic advances on several fronts unless they are assured of securing their aims in negotiations, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces. Senior rebel figure Mohammed al-Houthi said his movement has presented to the United Nations a detailed peace plan.

The Houthis wrecked an end-of-March ceasefire by firing ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and the port city of Jizan. Saudi air defences destroyed the missiles over their targets and conducted tit-for-tat raids on Houthi-held Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and Hodeidah port, through which most of Yemen’s imports enter.

To complicate the situation, the Saudis and erstwhile Emirati allies have fallen out and their clients have sparred over control of Aden port, the temporary capital of the anti-Houthi governament. Although it has withdrawn its troops, the Emirates continues to pursue its objective of imposing its sway over Yemen’s coasts by supporting separatists seeking to redivide Yemen.

This effort undermines the Saudi-sponsored government, which is committed to Yemeni unity. Riyadh’s unrealistic war aim was to establish Saudi hegemony over all Yemen.

The United Nations Development Programme has reported that Yemen "will face a new, merciless enemy that will be unbeatable if the armed conflict continues".

A ceasefire at this time could enable UN mediator Martin Griffiths to negotiate an end to the war and help efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus. According to UN figures, fighting in Yemen has killed more than 102,000, while 131,000 have died from hunger and disease since the conflict began. Some 3.6 million people have been displaced.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

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