The arrival of the coronavirus in war-torn Yemen in April 2020 became an opportunity for the warring parties to consolidate their positions and advance their competing military agendas on the ground, worsening an already devastating situation. As a result, most Yemenis view the pandemic as a threat that is secondary to their other preexisting challenges.
The War in Yemen Goes On
Yemen is not only witnessing a massive conflict but also weathering economic hardship and an unprecedented series of humanitarian crises, including famine and outbreaks of other diseases. As noted in the previous April 2020 piece on this topic, I did not expect the pandemic to positively change the intensity of the ongoing conflict, despite the hopes that emanated from some quarters.
True to my prediction, the hostilities in Yemen have only increased since then. The pandemic provided a convenient pretext for some of the warring parties, such as the Iran-backed Houthis and the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council, to proceed with military operations. The international community, preoccupied with handling the pandemic, was in no position to respond thoughtfully to these military operations. Would-be mediators have continued to pursue half-hearted diplomacy focused on Yemeni combatants, whereas a successful resolution to the conflict would actually require a diplomatic process focused on more influential regional actors. Meanwhile, the ongoing spread of the coronavirus has reaffirmed the indifference of the conflict’s factions toward the suffering of the Yemeni people.
How Combatants in Yemen Have Responded
Over the course of the pandemic, the conflict’s various parties have behaved in one of three ways. One recurring tendency has been to conceal the number of coronavirus infections in Yemen. Setting aside the country’s lack of testing capacity given the collapse of its healthcare sector, the number of likely cases as diagnosed by symptoms has also been hidden for more political reasons. In Houthi-controlled areas, the de facto security authorities have asked all the medical teams to not share the number of affected people with journalists or to write about the country’s medical situation on social media.
One reason for such concealment is clear. The Houthis are well aware that declaring such figures publicly would increase the Yemeni people’s frustration and dissatisfaction, which would put more pressure on the Houthis during the war. Other combatants’ policies may not include as much deliberate concealment as the Houthis’, but local authorities across the country have shown a strong tendency to downplay pandemic case figures.
The second, related way the warring factions in Yemen have responded to the public health crisis is by falsely claiming success in dealing with the pandemic: some authorities are making dubious claims that the areas under their control are free of the virus or are bragging about the supposedly strong precautionary measures they are taking. Almost all parties have attempted to polish their images among locals and international organizations.
Yet most of the public health measures they have actually taken have been merely nominal, without effective implementation and thus failing to tangibly combat the pandemic. In areas under the control of the internationally recognized government, some governorates have established quarantine centers for potential COVID-19 cases but have not provided the equipment or skilled medical teams that are needed. Given the paralyzed government’s financial and logistical inability to control the pandemic, government officials’ plans and declarations seem unrealistic. Similarly, the health minister of the Houthi de facto government announced that there are medical teams working on a vaccine, confidently stating, “The coronavirus medicine will come from Yemen.”
Third, many combatants have instrumentalized the pandemic to open new military fronts and continue fighting. International actors have, understandably, cited the danger of the pandemic to encourage a ceasefire and urge for peace talks such as those brokered by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Despite a nominal ceasefire announced in March, the fighting has not only continued but also has dramatically expanded in several areas.
The Houthi offensive along the northern front of Marib and al-Jawf has intensified. Although Saudi-backed and Emirati-backed forces are nominally still in a coalition, fighting has broken out repeatedly between them in southern Yemeni governorates, including near Aden. This city has had the highest mortality rate in the world during the pandemic, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Even the island of Socotra has seen violent incidents—the first time that has happened since the 1970s. UN-led talks have continued virtually, but the combatants’ commitment to seeking a reduction in violence has also proved to be more virtual than real.
The warring parties in Yemen have exploited anything they can, including the pandemic and other outbreaks of illnesses, to advance their own respective interests without paying any serious attention to the negative impact on people’s lives. Facing such a wide array of other challenges, most Yemenis have largely forgotten about the pandemic or have given it less attention than other pressing problems. This does not, however, mean that the number of coronavirus cases in the country is low. No one has accurate numbers, but the stories told about the daily deaths that are occurring reveal much about the disastrous consequences of the pandemic across the country. Nonetheless, the pandemic of war remains the major danger confronting Yemenis.