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Yemen: Responding to coronavirus in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

While recorded infections are low, the pandemic is believed to be sweeping across the country undetected. In a country beset by conflict and climate shocks, funding is required fast
, Annabel Symington
Malnutrition: Health workers assess a girl in a WFP-backed clinic in Aden in February. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

With five years of conflict having decimated the country's health system and left millions acutely food-insecure, Yemen is now facing a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic that is threatening to push millions of vulnerable people across the world into severe hunger. In Yemen, the World Food Programme (WFP) urgently needs US$878 million to continue providing life-saving assistance — our best line of defence against coronavirus.

Over two-thirds of the country's population of more than 30 million are food-insecure — 10 million suffer chronic hunger. WFP provides food assistance to more than 12 million people, while over a million children and mothers receive nutrition supplements to treat and prevent malnutrition.

‘Stay at home and we will die from hunger. And if we go out we will die from the disease.'

While officially recorded cases are relatively low in Yemen, the United Nations has warned that coronavirus is likely to be spreading undetected. Over the past few weeks, media, medical professionals, affected families, aid workers and other eyewitnesses have sounded the alarm that the country could see a surge in infections.

Habiba collects a WFP food voucher, in Sana'a, that is redeemable for flour, pulses, oil, sugar and salt from local traders. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

Already vulnerable families are more than aware that the desperate situation they find themselves in could spiral of control. People face grim choices. "Stay at home and we will die from hunger," says Habiba, in Sana'a, as she comes to collect her WFP food voucher. "And if we go out we will die from the disease."

Women and children are, as ever, bearing the brunt of this latest crisis: 2 million children and 1 million women are currently acutely malnourished in Yemen, figures WFP expects to rise as coronavirus infections soar.

Ashjan, a health worker at a nutrition clinic supported by WFP in the southern city of Aden, worries about the impact coronavirus will have on the women and children that she looks after every day.

"Among the many prevalent diseases in Aden, the coronavirus remains the greatest and most dangerous threat to the children and pregnant women who already suffer from malnutrition," says Ashjan. "As health workers, we try every day to talk to the patients about the danger of COVID-19, but very few understand it or are able to take the precautions."

Making matters worse, the war-torn country regularly suffers climate shocks such as April's flash floods — for people like Saeed in Sana'a, "stay home" is not an easy message to abide by. "I lost my house in the floods," he says.

Ongoing conflict, shifting frontlines, access challenges, and having to balance available resources with the unprecedented level of need, make it extremely difficult for WFP to deliver assistance to almost half the country — especially given the pressure on the supply chain from coronavirus restrictions.

Resilience-building projects supporting people's livelihoods are constantly interrupted — by war, climate shocks and COVID-19 restrictions.

"This has been a nightmare for my entire family," says Azab, a participant in a WFP-backed resilience project in Abyan that has now ended. "My family totally relies on my income and nothing else. Since I have no alternative income, I have been working on a farm carrying crops to the market. I get US$5 per day. But still, this work is not stable — I am working today but tomorrow… no one knows."

Like Azab, Lutfi has worked in construction as part of a resilience-building project in Aden. But since the project ended, he too is now struggling to earn enough each day to feed his family. Lutfi has received the training and kit he needs to be able to catch fish. It's hard, he says. He doesn't catch enough to sell at the market. "I've got to stay in the sea for the whole day and that's quite difficult fasting [during Ramadan] and in the heat".

What he does catch, however, helps his family pull through.

Lutfi worked on a WFP-suppported school rehabilitation project February. Now he fishes for a living, but what he catches is not enough. Photo: WFP/Hebatallah Munassar

So far, despite multiple challenges, WFP has managed to get food to the families who rely on our assistance for survival.

Together with partners, WFP has introduced measures at ports, warehouses, distribution points to make sure assistance can be delivered in a safe way, protecting our staff and the families we support. The situation is constantly evolving, and we are continually adapting the way we operate.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the USA, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Germany have been stalwarts in supporting Yemen during its hunger crisis. Now WFP hopes that efforts will be redoubled as it seeks US$878 million dollars to continue its operation to save lives, and change lives in what is already the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

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