Yemen coronavirus lockdown to hamper relief effort

Will the flight and movement ban make it harder to save lives?

Flights around Yemen
A flight tracking image shows flights around Yemen on 17 March 2020. (Courtesy of Flightradar24.com)

The banning of flights in and out of Yemen to reduce the spread of coronavirus has seen international relief teams scaled back to essential staff only, medical evacuations halted, and a scheme to limit aid fraud using fingerprinting technology likely put on ice.

Top priority, life-saving assistance such as food, water, sanitation, and health services will continue, but some less critical UN programmes will be slowed, under a prioritisation scheme called “Programme Criticality”, according to UN officials familiar with the situation.

Questions to the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, went unanswered by time of publication.

Both the Houthi rebels and Yemen’s internationally recognised government announced flight bans last week in an attempt to keep the country free of COVID-19 – the disease that has infected at least 190,000 people and killed almost 8,000 across the world since December.

Houthi authorities announced on 14 March that flights from the capital, Sana’a, would be stopped. Later the same day, the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi decided on a two-week flight ban to include all the country’s airports. Passenger travel by road within Yemen will also be limited, according to the UN’s logistics group.

The stoppage includes chartered medical evacuations, which are run by the UN’s World Health Organisation and have so far carried a total of 28 patients and their families from Sana’a to Amman since 3 February, and took months to negotiate.

The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Médecins Sans Frontières operate the only regular flights into Sana’a, which is controlled by the Houthis. Aid workers with at least 60 international NGOs also use the UN’s flights to get in and out of the country.

All other flights to Sana’a have been banned since August 2016 by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that backs Hadi’s government and controls the air space. The coalition and the government have been fighting Houthi rebels for five years in a war the UN says has left 24 million civilians in need of aid.

Impact on aid operations

The last flight operated by the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) from Sana’a departed 16 March, according to UN staffers, and the last UNHAS flight from the southern city of Aden left the following day.

According to UN officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media, dozens of UN and NGO international staff have been moved out of Yemen, or told not to return from leave and to work remotely. A core selection of international staff, who would normally rotate in and out on rest and recuperation breaks, will stay in-country for an indefinite period.

The UN-led logistics cluster, a coordination group for aid agencies and international NGOs on transport issues headed by the World Food Programme, gave its members this advice in a 17 March web posting: “All passenger transport to/from and inside Yemen is suspended by any means of transport (air, boat, road), as per authorities’ decisions.”

The limits on road travel within the country will also impact the relief operation. But despite the halt to passenger flights, the UN-led Yemen aid operation will continue, with the vast majority of staff being Yemeni, and many support functions – including some finance, human resources, and administration – already run from offices in Jordan and Cairo; although both countries have recently introduced their own flight restrictions.

“We want to contribute to these efforts against COVID-19 while ensuring continuity of care for people injured in fighting or infected with other diseases such as cholera,” MSF said in a written statement. “Our strength lies in the fact that we can rely on locally recruited staff who make up more than 90 percent of our employees in the country.”

At least for now, aid workers said they believed aid cargo would still be allowed into the country. ICRC spokesperson Ruth Hetherington said her organisation “does not expect cargo flights to be disrupted”. The WFP told logistics cluster members that “all humanitarian cargo importation and movement is ongoing but may be subject to precautionary health measures”.

The WFP confirmed that sea ports remain open for cargo – Yemen is largely reliant on cargo arriving by sea for imports of food, fuel, and other consumer essentials critical to civilian welfare.

While they didn’t expect most relief operations to be immediately jeopardised, aid workers said there was concern among staff left behind. Speaking anonymously in order to comment freely, one UN employee – assigned as essential staff and remaining in Sana’a – said it “definitely stirs some fears” to be locked down in a country preparing for COVID-19 whose “healthcare system is in tatters” due to the ongoing conflict.

However a senior aid official, who also requested anonymity, told TNH the measures could not be faulted on public health grounds. They argued that well-travelled aid workers “are exactly the people you don’t want to come” to Yemen when trying to avoid a pandemic.

The WHO announced today in a media note and briefing that it has been supporting national health authorities to prepare for COVID-19 with medical supplies, testing kits, training, and information campaigns.

Biometrics plan on hold?

A key aid reform demanded by UN agencies and donors may also be on hold due to COVID-19 regulations.

For over a year, the WFP has been negotiating a fingerprint-driven digital registration system for aid recipients – intended to power a new headcount of those eligible for assistance, and to reduce fraud. But the Houthi authorities announced in a Saturday press conference that they had banned the use of fingerprint technology out of health concerns.

The UN’s Yemen aid operation is the costliest in the world, and is facing allegations of widespread fraud, manipulation, and waste. Last June, the WFP temporarily halted food aid to 850,000 people in Sana’a after the Houthis refused to agree to the new biometric registration system, which the agency said was essential for preventing diversion.

In a 23 February statement, the agency said it welcomed “recent process” with the Houthi aid body “towards beginning a biometric registration exercise” in one part of Sana’a, which could lead to a cash aid distribution. The statement said an “agreement has not been reached on some conditions being imposed by the Houthi aid body”.

Asked by TNH, the WFP did not respond to a question about this weekend’s fingerprint ban and its implications for the biometrics plan.

(Top photo courtesy of Flightradar24.com.)

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