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Yemen in Crisis: Conflict Colliding with COVID-19

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Afflicted with a cholera epidemic, nation-wide food insecurity, and a civil-turned proxy war, Yemen has been in crisis for the better part of a decade. The pandemic has further confounded the devastation of this trifecta of crises, causing experts to fear that Yemen will be effectively wiped from the world map if the country does not receive the aid and restoration of justice it so desperately needs.1

The devastation––said to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis––is rooted in political unrest and conflict.2 In 2011, there was an unsuccessful transfer of power as then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to relinquish control to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.3 The new president was tasked with solving the country’s countless problems, including unemployment, food insecurity, and poverty––on top of governmental corruption and rebel forces threatening the impending war.3 In March of 2015, The Houthi rebel forces gained country of much of the country and forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.3 The Hadi government joined forced with Saudi Arabia––backed by powerful nations including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France––to form a coalition to combat the Houthis and restore order.3

However, years of conflict and war have ensued, bringing mass devastation to the civilians of Yemen.3 The Yemen Data Project has estimated that the Saudi-led coalition has conducted more than 20,100 air attacks since the war began in 2015, an estimated 12 attacks a day. 4 The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) confirmed that since the onset of war in 2015, there have been over 100,000 reported fatalities.3 Despite the United Nations’ attempts to orchestrate peace, the war recently re-escalated in January with several missile and air strikes.3

While massive amounts of casualties have directly resulted from violence, compounding political, social, and economic unrest has presented adverse health outcomes that have caused rivalling devastation.3 In 2017, the coalition tightened security at the Saudi-Yemen border, in an attempt to prevent Houthi forces from gaining weapons.3 However, increased regulations meant restrictions on food, fuel, and other essentials––which has proven particularly problematic for food security, considering Yemen imports 90% of its food sources.1 Subsequently, the price of food increased astronomically, pushing large portions of the population into poverty.1 Today, the UN estimates that approximately 20 million people––80% of the country’s population––need help securing food, with almost 10 million on the verge of famine.3

Food insecurity has resulted in women and children experiencing a host of unparalleled adversities.5 The malnutrition rates of women and children in Yemen are among the highest in the world, with more than one million women and two million children suffering from acute malnutrition.5 Child marriage has become a damaging mechanism for families to survive food insecurity. Daughters are being married off at as young as eight years old, to reduce the number of mouths to feed and secure a substantial dowry that will help to feed the rest of the family.5 In addition to young girls, pregnant and breastfeeding women and their children are increasingly vulnerable to the adverse effects of food insecurity.5 These women are unable to obtain the dietary requirements to support the health of themselves and their children––resulting in 50% of children being stunted.5

The war’s resulting desolation has left Yemen without the infrastructure to serve the population’s most basic needs, including access to water, sanitation, and healthcare.1 The destruction of water and sanitation systems has resulted in 17.8 million civilians without access to clean water and sanitation.5 These conditions constitute breeding grounds for disease, as seen through the deadly cholera outbreak in 2017.1 With the epidemic reaching over 2.2 million suspected cases in 2019, Yemen’s healthcare system has struggled to curb the largest recorded cholera outbreak in history.6 A lack of infrastructure, resources, and personnel leave only half of the country’s 3,500 medical facilities fully functioning, lending to 20 million without access to healthcare.3

Without functioning political, economic, or healthcare systems, Yemen remains powerless in the fight against COVID-19. As of early June, Yemen has recorded 400 cases and 87 deaths, which is thought to be an extreme under-representative of the pandemic’s burden due to limited testing capabilities.7 At the end of May, just over 2,000 of the 28 million person population had been tested.7 The UN’s head of humanitarian operations in Yemen, Lisa Grande, recently stated that the death toll from the pandemic could “exceed the combined toll of war, disease, and hunger over the last five years,” which could mean as many as 230,000 deaths.7

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, maintains that the only way to save Yemeni from the current humanitarian crisis is to end the war.6 However, ending the war and reconstructing basic infrastructure will be no easy feat. Though supporting nations recognize the war has caused unprecedented damage, powerful international players, including Canada, continue to fuel the conflict.8 Canada had previously suspended weapon exports to Saudi Arabia; however, since the onset of the pandemic, the ban has been lifted.8 With little pushback from the media or public, the Canadian government has reinstated a weapon’s export deal they were previously vocal about ending.8 Cesar Jaramillo, the executive director of Canadian peace research institute Project Ploughshares, considers that “each day Canada continues arms exports to Saudi Arabia, its arms control and humanitarian credentials continue to crumble.”8

The UN held a virtual pledging event on June 2nd, in which 29 countries and the European Commission pledged a total of $1.35 billion to support the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.9 This number is narrowly half of the amount that is needed for the UN to sustain its programs for the rest of the year.6 Non-governmental organizations, aid agencies, and advocates are doing wonders to inform the public of the devastation and encourage donations to reach aid targets. However, it is in times of crisis that the world’s most powerful nations must consider their role and responsibility in restoring the human rights of a global neighbour in need.


  1. Marwah, N. (2020). Worst Humanitarian Crisis! Yemen is Getting Wiped Off Because of the Pandemic. Inventivia. Retrieved from

  2. BBC. (2020). What’s happening in Yemen? BBC. Retrieved from

  3. BBC. (2020). Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? BBC. Retrieved from

  4. Human Rights Watch. (2020). Yemen: Events of 2019. Humans Rights Watch. Retrieved from

  5. Johnston, G. P. (2020). Humanitarian crisis deepens in Yemen. The Kingston Whig Standard. Retrieved from

  6. UN News. (2020). Yemen: ‘Hanging on by a thread’, UN chief requests funding to meet staggering humanitarian crisis. UN News. Retrieved from

  7. Karasapan, O. (2020). Yemen and COVID-19: The pandemic exacts its devastating toll. Brookings. Retrieved from

  8. Gadzo, M. (2020). Canada lifts suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Aljazeera. Retrieved from

9. Stone, R. (2020). Yemen was facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Then the coronavirus hit. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from

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