Yemen: A Forgotten Humanitarian Catastrophe

Eshitha Vaz
UCL Population Health Student

When a country is experiencing the worst public health crisis since 1945, it is a crime in itself to turn a blind eye – to ignore the suffering of its civilian peoples and to be complicit even through silence, in the destruction of its character. Yet for the last three years as the Arab world’s poorest country has been struck by brutal civil war resulting in more than 4,600 civilian deaths and the world’s worst current cholera epidemic with cases exceeding half a million, the firm political influence of a Saudi-backed coalition has forced Yemen into a state of raging humanitarian emergency.

As a consequence of the civil war, Yemen’s economy lies in shreds – its broken health system struggling to manage the heavy burden of physical injuries from cross-fire as well as the rising mortality from malnutrition and starvation. Indeed, more than half of public hospitals in Taiz, the country’s third-largest city remain inaccessible – an effect that amounts to an estimated $3.6 billion in damage (Reuters, 2016). As a result, the United Nations’ Report last year concluded that more than 20 million people in the country are in urgent need of humanitarian medical aid. Particularly, many communities trapped in active conflict zones have become unreachable with limited access to telephones, TV connection or radio lines meaning that travel for medical care is severely restricted, exacerbated further by the rising cost of journeys to hospitals in Sana’a – the country’s capital city.  The year-long closure of Sana’a International Airport has only served to escalate the humanitarian conflict where the restriction of commercial travel has increased reliance on already crumbling public health services meaning that thousands of Yemenis are bereft of access to critical medical care; the Ministry of Health in Sana’a estimates that 10,000 Yemeni deaths have been a direct result of inability to seek medical treatment abroad. With the sick and injured left no choice but to travel by boat to the central port city of Aden for treatment, the heavy crowds make transmission of infectious disease easier. To this extent, the damage to community infrastructure is in itself almost equal in the number of deaths it results in as the effect of weaponry.

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Yemeni rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher amid the rubble of a destroyed building in Sana’a. (Oct 2016).

Photograph: Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty Images

“my son was 14 hours old when he died…the doctors told us he needed intensive care and oxygen…I wanted to take him outside the city but there was no way out” – Mohamed Taiz

In addition to being a stark public health crisis, the civil war in Yemen is undoubtedly an issue of human rights, indicting the role of Saudi Arabia in the conflict and questioning the position of its arms suppliers including the United Kingdom in relation to war crimes. Particularly, the rampant attacks of Saudi-led air-strikes on civilian areas including its bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in North-West Yemen last August has propelled the drain of healthcare workers from the country and thus, driving morbidity and mortality rates to records never seen in the country’s history. Indeed, the World Food Program estimates that more than 4.5 million children, pregnant and lactating women are acutely malnourished where record number of babies are being born prematurely – a likely result of maternal stress and the inability of mothers to feed themselves.

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A malnourished boy sits on a bed at a malnutrition treatment center in SANAA, Yemen          (Oct, 2016)

In light of this, such suffering on a macro scale cannot be halted without urgent political response and political accountability. Despite the statement by the United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that Saudi Arabian bombing of civilian areas broke international law, British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond stated last year that British manufactured weapons are being used by Saudi forces. Particularly, the Trump Administration’s decision to sell weapons worth more than $500 million to Saudi Arabia threatens to deepen the Yemeni humanitarian crisis further; how can arguably the most powerful country in the world call itself moral when it becomes a vein to destroy another nation and its people? In what is likely to become the worst humanitarian catastrophe in current times, this conflict should not be shadowed or forgotten neither by governments nor by citizens. It is of moral and social duty that pressure must be put at the source of the conflict – where the weapons are obtained, for it is only then that wounds can heal and are not simply left bandaged.

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