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UN appeals for Yemen aid amidst growing pandemic, donor doubts

‘COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, despite low official figures.’

A man wears protective mask in Sana'a
A man wears a protective mask with a Yemeni greeting written on it, as he walks at a market in Sana'a amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, 16 May 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS)

As COVID-19 courses through Yemen at an unknown rate, the UN is appealing to the international community for $2.4 billion to help people stuck in a country where civilians are still going hungry, being killed by bombs and guns, and struggling to access the most basic services.

That’s less money than last year for what the UN calls “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”, but the reduced ask is not because life has eased for millions of people living through five disastrous years of war.

Tuesday’s donor “pledging event” will be co-hosted by the UN and Saudi Arabia; it was originally planned for Riyadh but was forced online by the global pandemic. Saudi Arabia leads an international coalition that, alongside the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, is fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The war has had a devastating impact on almost all parts of life in the country, killing more than 112,000 people in direct violence, according to data monitor ACLED.

Just as it said at last year’s February pledging event, the UN estimates that 80 percent of the population – that’s 24 million people – need some sort of international aid. Tuesday’s ask includes $180 million to fight COVID-19, which has added to a long list of woes in a country with more than its share, including hunger, forced displacement, a decimated health system, waterborne diseases like cholera, and widespread poverty. The UN has trimmed its original full-year request down from $3.2 billion: the current ask is only for the rest of 2020.

In 2019, the UN asked for $4.2 billion for programmes carried out by its agencies and hundreds of associated aid groups. They received $3.6 billion last year, but so far only $531 million for 2020.

Facing wide-scale obstruction and diversion, the United States led February calls for tougher measures against corruption and waste, and cut some of its funding when it said insufficient progress was made. Now, the World Food Programme has cut food rations, the World Health Organisation has halted top-up payments to health workers, and UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said in a Tuesday statement that several humanitarian programmes in Yemen are “hanging by a thread”. Most agencies working in the country are “a few weeks from being broke”, Lowcock said. “We are asking donors not just to promise money today but to pay pledges promptly.”

Despite the need, Lowcock said in a Monday email to the heads of major UN agencies, seen by The New Humanitarian, that “indications on funding are not encouraging”, saying that donors may pledge up to $1.5 billion on Tuesday, with Saudi Arabia – both a party in the war and usually a major donor – “talking about providing just $300 million through the UN”. That would be $200 million less than the country had promised in early April to deliver before today’s conference. A spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s aid agency did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

A UN spokesperson also did not respond to a request for comment on the contents of the email, which provides a blunt assessment of its partner for the event: "The Saudis have not lived up to their agreement to disburse their $500 million pledge,” it says, noting, “they and other Gulf donors are hit hard by the fall of the oil price.” 

"If we end up tomorrow [2 June] where we currently expect,” Lowcock added in the email, “it will be important not to describe [the pledging event] as a success."

At the same time as it seeks money to help Yemenis, the aid community is facing a COVID-19 outbreak among its own: WFP told TNH that three of its workers in Yemen had died of the virus, and several NGOs confirmed that many of their local employees or their family members were reporting symptoms consistent with it.

The pandemic hits

While COVID-19 is making headlines, it remains unclear how many people have actually died of the disease in Yemen. The official figures of 354 confirmed cases and 84 deaths are widely believed to be a vast undercount, because of low testing capacity, the fact that officials in various parts of the country (especially Houthi rebels) may be suppressing the real numbers, and the suspicion that people are likely dying outside of hospitals and clinics, which are largely unequipped to deal with the outbreak. In his email, Lowcock said, “COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, despite low official figures.” 

Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs the only COVID-19 treatment centre in the southern city of Aden, said in a statement that it admitted 228 patients between 30 April and 24 May, 99 of whom died. In a previous statement warning of a “wider catastrophe” in Aden (which has recently been deluged by flooding), it said, “many patients are arriving at the centre already suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome, suggesting that many more people are sick at home.”

Suha Basharen, gender specialist with the aid group CARE in Yemen, told TNH she is concerned that among those suffering at home are women who, with schools shut, find their domestic responsibilities even harder than usual and may be unable or unwilling to seek healthcare when they need it.

She pointed out that anecdotal evidence suggested this was a problem during Yemen’s waves of cholera – the country has seen more than than 3,900 deaths related to the disease since October 2016, and in mid-2017 it was taking one life an hour – but data was not split by gender so there was a lack of hard numbers.

“Part of the sadness in the Yemeni context [of COVID-19] is that we don’t have the capacity to diagnose and detect [who has COVID-19].”

But, with cholera, “women and and girls do not want to say they have diarrhoea, they just continue their duties,” Basharen said, pointing out that the same may be true of COVID-19, especially in rural areas where health services require long and expensive transport. “If the men in the house don’t realise that wives and daughters are sick, they will not take them to the hospital,” she said.

Adding to that, she said, is the risk that malnourished women, especially those who are pregnant and breast-feeding, may have a harder time fighting off the virus. The UN estimates that more than one million pregnant women are malnourished in Yemen, and “they will be one of the most vulnerable groups,” said Busharen.

Alex Nawa, Yemen country director for Action contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), said he is also keeping a look out for how the virus will impact people who don’t have enough to eat. Famine has long stalked Yemen, although it was never officially declared, and the UN says that two thirds of Yemenis are hungry.

“Part of the sadness in the Yemeni context [of COVID-19] is that we don’t have the capacity to diagnose and detect [who has COVID-19],” Nawa told TNH. “It is quite difficult. We know people with diseases like cholera, diabetes, heart-related diseases, are at a higher risk, because their immune system is decreased, and their bodies don’t have the strength to fight back. It’s probably the same thing with malnutrition.”

Aid chaos

Even if the UN and the NGOs whose projects are included in the $2.4 billion plan get the money they are asking for, and in a timely manner, some question if it will really be able to stem the tide of COVID-19 or the various other overlapping crises Yemenis are facing.

At the same time as the UN has accused Houthi rebels of diverting aid and making it extremely difficult for aid groups to operate in the northern parts of the country that they control, the Houthis are ramping up their rhetoric against international aid providers. The group has repeatedly slammed aid groups, accusing them of being “lazy” and insisting on linking aid dollars with the number of COVID-19 cases

This has likely contributed to a decreased willingness of people to seek help, be it for COVID-19 or other health issues. “Ongoing propaganda, poor health facilities, and fear... are detracting from people’s willingness to seek out medical care, even to pick up basic nutritional products,” said Nawa of Action contre la Faim.

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Still, Lowcock said in his email that “money is a bigger problem than access” for the aid operation in Yemen, which is made up mostly of local aid workers and may be facing a rash of cases. The UN has pulled half of its foreign staff out of Yemen.

In an email confirming the deaths of aid workers, a spokesperson said that “WFP is deeply saddened by the loss over the weekend of two colleagues in Yemen who had contracted COVID-19. The WFP team in Yemen has now lost a total of three staff to coronavirus. WFP is doing everything possible to look after our staff who are on the front lines supporting the most vulnerable while this pandemic rages.”

In addition, a senior UN official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, told TNH that two staffers had been flown out of Yemen on medical evacuation flights, including the driver of Yemen UN humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande. 

Two UN spokespeople, including the spokesperson in Yemen for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, did not respond to a request for comment on the evacuations. But a journalist with a Houthi television channel tweeted a video that appeared to show medics preparing to load a man, who he said was Grande’s driver, from a stretcher onto an air ambulance.  

The UN says Yemenis don’t have time to wait for pledges to trickle in, but if and when they do, they still won’t go to all groups working to help people on ground. 

Muna Luqman, co-founder of the Yemeni NGO Food 4 Humanity, which was early to set up testing and isolation centres in places like the frontline city of Taiz and has been helping to fund clean-up efforts in Aden, says that large donor events like today’s are a sign that the troubled aid system in Yemen needs reforming. Small local aid groups like hers often are not eligible for the funding raised at these conferences, and she says a failure to work closely with NGOs close to the ground is one of the reasons many people who need help don’t get it. 

“This is the time of the year when I get frustrated, and I stay frustrated until the next pledges,” Luqman said. “This is the time where we, as locals, women, and grassroots organisations are frustrated. That’s because we hear about the billions coming in, and at the same time we are the ones dealing with it if there is a famine on the ground, or even stepping in to support hospitals.”

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