As Yemen marked its fifth year of conflict, the world barely noticed given the headlines about coronavirus. But amid the despair, there was a small silver lining: the parties agreed to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s call for a cease fire, a pause that is crucial as COVID-19 bears down on Yemen.
The impending impact of the global pandemic in Yemen is all the more haunting to me as I was expecting to be visiting our partners and work in Yemen, where we're working to improve the health of war-affected communities in Yemen through projects focusing on waste management and providing safe and clean water. Just recently, I was in Jordan with my Yemeni visa approved and planning meetings with our country director and local staff.
But as COVID-19 news reports across the region increased, the dominoes began to fall. Although Yemen had no reported cases of COVID-19, it quickly became too difficult to travel, too hard to predict whether we’d get stuck. And I’ll be honest, as a mother of three small children, if I’m facing down a public health crisis or risk of illness myself, the last place I’d want to get stuck is Yemen. An awful sentiment, especially for the Yemenis themselves, the most vulnerable and victims of the conflict who don’t have any other options.
The conflict of the past five years has taken a significant toll on the infrastructure and basic services for the people. The Saudi government — backed by the U.S. — has been accused of deliberately targeting health care facilities, hospitals and schools. Now, the specter of this destruction hangs over the preparedness efforts underway for COVID-19 like a black cloud.
Facing a disease that spreads rapidly and with little advance signs, Yemen’s high population density, poor living conditions, insufficient hygiene products or clean water access make it ripe for a crushing blow from COVID-19. To top it off, Yemen’s medical capacity is crippled, and over 20 million people are food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders that seem to flatten the curve in other parts of the world will only further restrict access and flow of goods for those in need of assistance and will certainly exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities for the bulk of Yemen’s population.
There’s a lot on the news these days causing fear, confusion, and concern, but the ceasefire offers a small glimmer of hope. It’s important that we seize on to it with both hands and embrace the opportunity, even while mobilizing quickly to address the awful circumstances that have brought us to this point. The Yemeni people deserve better – a chance to rebuild from the rubble of the past five years, a chance to come together in unity with each other and the world against this pandemic, and a chance to find a peaceful resolution for themselves and their families. It breaks my heart that it’s taken up to this point to find this silver lining, and I pray we don’t waste it as we face the challenges ahead.