The coronavirus is now spreading in Yemen, which announced its first case on Friday. It’s an extremely alarming development in a country suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Thirty million mostly impoverished people have lost at least half their health care facilities since neighboring Saudi Arabia began a punishing military intervention there in 2015 with U.S. support.
The coronavirus news panicked Yemenis and aid groups already fighting mass hunger and a yearslong cholera outbreak. And it highlighted that while world powers like the U.S., Britain and France struggle with the novel coronavirus themselves, they bear significant blame for making places like Yemen especially vulnerable to the new global crisis. Those three countries have given extensive support to the Saudis and allies like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), risking complicity in war crimes, according to United Nations investigators.
“We’ve unfortunately played a role … and have a moral responsibility to assist,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers making the U.S. role in Yemen a top concern in Congress in recent years.
Under two U.S. presidents ― Barack Obama, who originally approved assistance to the Saudi-led campaign, and Donald Trump ― America has helped pummel Yemen’s critical infrastructure even as government experts watched the country collapse and sent hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid there.
The Saudi-led coalition, whose weapons largely come from the U.S. and other Western producers, attacked at least 32 Yemeni health facilities between 2015 and the end of 2018, killing and injuring medical workers and putting units out of commission, per a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights and the Yemen-based group Mwatana for Human Rights. Until November 2018, the coalition’s planes were also receiving U.S. aerial refueling that enabled longer bombing runs.
As the coronavirus spread worldwide and charities warned it could devastate conflict zones, Trump slashed U.S. aid to Yemen on March 27. The U.S. Agency for International Development said it would suspend at least $73 million earmarked for the north of the country, which is controlled by the Houthis, a rebel militia the Saudis and their partners are fighting. Outside assessments suggested the final cut could be as high as $200 million out of a $746 million budget that provided about one-fifth of the world’s humanitarian support for Yemen.
American officials say their new policy will pressure the Houthis to stop interfering with aid deliveries and work. But humanitarian groups view that as a poor and badly timed response to a real problem.
“Putting Yemeni lives in the balance through a premature and unilateral funding suspension will not improve the humanitarian situation,” Scott Paul of Oxfam America said in a press release last month. The U.S. “says it will continue supporting life-saving activities even as it eviscerates Yemen’s first and best defense against the defining health crisis of our time. That is simply impossible to understand.”
The U.N. urged other donor countries to continue supporting north Yemen as its agencies and marquee charities like the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and Islamic Relief prepared to limit operations, the UAE-based outlet The National reported.
The Houthi-run areas affected include Yemen’s capital and biggest city, Sana’a, large refugee camps and regions that have been particularly badly hit by the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing.
Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who chair powerful committees overseeing foreign policy in the House of Representatives, led a letter urging the Trump administration to change course. Administration officials have spoken with congressional staff about programs that might be allowed to continue receiving U.S. funding, but the exemptions they are describing are “very narrow,” a Democratic aide told HuffPost.
America has helped pummel Yemen’s critical infrastructure even as government experts watched the country collapse and sent hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid there.
Now that the coronavirus can definitively be added to the long list of Yemen’s problems, aid workers are even more distressed about the consequences of U.S. policy there.
“For weeks we have feared this, and now it’s happened,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in the country, said in reaction to Friday’s news. “After five years of war, people across the country have some of the lowest levels of immunity and highest levels of acute vulnerability in the world … more people who become infected are likely to become severely ill than anywhere else.”
One immediate way to give Yemenis a fighting chance would be to end the conflict between Saudi-backed forces and the Houthis. Riyadh announced a two-week suspension in its campaign last week, and U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths is speeding up negotiations.
But rebel leaders say other steps are necessary to build goodwill — notably, an end to the U.S.-backed coalition’s embargo of the areas under Houthi control, which has worsened the risk of famine by driving up prices and slowing down vital imports.
Lifting the blockade would be a crucial step, Khanna said. He’s recently discussed Yemen’s plight with conservatives who have worked with him on anti-war measures and have some degree of influence on the president, who could push Saudi Arabia on the restrictions. But he noted that their chief concern at present is their own districts and that Trump could well see the U.S. aid cut as suiting his “America First” thinking.
“America’s moral responsibility in the world has always been premised on the dignity of every human life, and we’ve always prided ourselves on doing all we can within reasonable constraints,” Khanna told HuffPost. Amid a historic pandemic, “backing away from that … is very sad.”