The Coronavirus in War-torn Yemen

20190901 2 37999764 47216401 BY MARIO ALEXIS PORTELLA ·

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As reported by Naseh Shaker, a freelance journalist based in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, health officials from both Yemeni warring sides have bragged about taking precautionary measures, including repatriating 187 Yemeni students and their families on February 23 from Wuhan—the Chinese city where the virus was first reported. According to Houthi health official Abdul Hakim al-Kuhlani, they had their temperatures upon return and were “declared” to have been tested negative for the COVID-19. According to a circular from Yemen’s embassy in China, while the evacuation of 20,000 Yemenis living in Wuhan was to begin on February 29 and be taken to the UAE and be placed in quarantine, yet it is unclear if the plan was implemented.

Kuhlani said the Houthi-run Health Ministry in Sanaa receives figures on a daily basis from the Saudi-backed government in Aden and the Seiyun Airport in Hadhramaut, as well as from the Shahin and Serfeet land crossings on the border with Oman. Yet there is some reluctance to the facts since the cooperation between the Houthis and government is limited and indirect, as it is being conducted through a third party, namely the World Health Organization (WHO). This is perhaps why on March 21 the Houthis called on international aid agencies to provide support for hospitals and take action against the potential outbreak of the respiratory illness in the war-torn country.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis demands special attention now because  the devastation of the health care system the devastation of the health care system and the severely compromised immunity of the population because of malnutrition make them very vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. If the virus should spread widely in Yemen, it would be fatal for countless innocent people. As the country’s WHO representative Altaf Musani stated: “It is a perfect storm of a disaster should this virus introduce itself. Cholera, dengue, malaria and poor sanitation are rife and around 80% of Yemenis are reliant on humanitarian aid while millions live on the brink of starvation, leaving them vulnerable to other forms of disease.”

WHO, with Saudi Arabia’s consent—the Saudis control Yemen’s airspace—has now sent medical aid to Yemen to battle the coronavirus outbreak. The medical aid was intended for the capital Sana’a, controlled by Houthi rebels, and Aden, where Yemen’s Saudi-backed internationally recognized government is based. The shipment included protective items for health workers, lab screening tests, trauma medicines and supplies to support the response to the crisis, according to the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO).

The Western-backed Saudi coalition waging this asymmetrical continues to deliberately target civilian infrastructure—they arbitrarily attack homes, farms, factories, schools, buses, gas stations, government buildings, water treatment facilities, and anything else imaginable. In fact, over the past three-plus years, Saudi airstrikes have produced over 35,000 civilian casualties: over 13,000 killed and over 21,000 injured—many of which are women and children. What is more, the acts of the Saudi-led coalition constitute genocide within the meaning of 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Crime of Genocide.

Notwithstanding the potential pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Saudi Arabia and Saudi-backed forces continue to carry out series of abuses against Yemeni civilians in the furthermost eastern province of al-Mahra. Journalists and activists in support of the local Yemenis who oppose Saudi occupation have also been subjected to torture in the form of beatings, electric shocks, and threats to harm their family members, inside a detention facility in the airport in al-Ghaydah, according to HRW.

Last September, the UN released a report indicating that by providing military aid, intelligence sharing, logistical support, and weapons to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the U.S. may be complicit in war crimes. A Saudi-brokered agreement in November 2019 was supposed to bring the two sides back together, but has yet to be implemented fully. It is time for the U.S. to realize that supporting the Saudis has not only prolonged the misery of innocent Yemenis but it now puts them at further risks of death.


Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University in New York, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.