A farmer in the Al-Sabeen district in the Yemeni capital Sana’a wears a face mask and gloves while on his way to work on May 22, 2020 // Photo: Douaa Sudam
Commentary by Osamah Al-Rawhani
The COVID-19 virus is rapidly spreading in northern Yemen and the response of Houthi authorities – to publicly deny this reality and silence those who contradict them – has ensured vastly more Yemenis will needlessly suffer and die in the months to come.
In the last week of Ramadan, there has been an escalating sense in the Yemeni capital that the pandemic is spiraling out of control. On the street and in social media, almost everyone seems to know someone who either has the virus or has died from it – though most can only guess based on known symptoms, given the scarcity of testing and the Houthis’ suppression of test results. The United Nations now considers there to be “full-blown” virus transmission occurring in Yemen and has pulled half of its foreign staff out of Houthi-controlled areas.
The advance of the virus in Yemen — a country already plagued by curable diseases, a collapsed health system and weak immunity levels after five years of war — urgently demands a coordinated and comprehensive response between local authorities and international stakeholders. Instead, the armed Houthi movement, under whose control most of the population lives, has pursued a catastrophic strategy of trying to conceal the virus’ spread. By doing so, the group is also preventing aid agencies from being able to rally international funds and resources to address the surging crisis.
Speaking privately, healthcare workers in Sana’a say the virus arrived in northern Yemen at least two months ago, though Houthi authorities did not announce any cases of coronavirus in territory they control until May 5. To date, they have reported just four cases of COVID-19, which they say have resulted in one death and two recoveries, with one case reportedly still active. Meanwhile, as they have publicly denied the spread of the virus, Houthi authorities have enforced sporadic closures of neighborhoods and pursued a militarized response to suspected cases: armed men have accompanied medical staff in raids on houses of suspected patients, and in some cases militants have been stationed outside the homes of COVID-19 patients to enforce quarantine. This has created a fear of reporting symptoms and stigmatized the disease. While two hospitals in Sana’a – Zayed Hospital and Kuwait Hospital – are receiving patients with COVID-19, doctors and family members of people who are thought to have died from the disease say they fear to speak openly because of threats of reprisal. To deflect blame, the Houthi authorities have also scapegoated migrants as “transmitters of disease,” falsely claiming a Somali refugee first brought the virus to northern Yemen. This has stoked xenophobic attacks and discrimination against vulnerable communities in the country.
The Houthi leadership’s COVID-19 response is in line with the group’s general disregard for the lives of those under their control. Throughout the conflict they have consistently pursued their own enrichment and entrenchment in power over such things as the provision of basic public services or public salaries. The Houthi leadership perceives COVID-19 as a threat to their resources, rather than a threat to Yemeni lives. Their concealment of the spread of COVID-19 is a short-sighted effort to protect their sources of financing and military manpower – even at the potential expense of millions of lives.
In 2019, Houthi authorities collected more than 500 billion Yemeni rials (around US$1 billion) in taxes and customs from territories they control — often extorted mafia-style from shops and businesses – representing the group’s largest income source. The holy month of Ramadan, and the upcoming holiday of Eid, are the most profitable time of the year for Houthi authorities, given the general increase in public spending and that many Muslims pay their annual alms, or zakat, during Ramadan. Notably, the Houthi movement has imprisoned businessmen who paid their zakat directly to the poor, instead of to the Houthi-run General Authority of Zakat.
Were the Houthi authorities to acknowledge the reality of the situation in areas they control, it would become untenable for them not to impose mitigation measures to slow the virus’ spread, including shutting down economic activity and limiting social interaction. This would immediately impact the Houthi bottom line – who would there be to extort if all the shops were closed? In addition to threatening Houthi resources, any serious efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 could undermine the recruitment and mobilization of fighters, a concession the Houthis are loath to entertain.
By falsely assuring the public that the disease is not spreading in northern Yemen, however, the Houthi authorities are facilitating the uncontrolled transmission of this highly contagious disease. Suspected victims of COVID-19 have also been buried at funerals attended by hundreds of mourners. Even those who are hesitant to attend such funerals face social pressure to do so, and their absence can create lasting tension and social disintegration, another cost Yemen cannot afford after five years of war-induced fragmentation. Such predicaments could be avoided if Houthi authorities were open about the transmission risks and the need for physical distancing.
Transparency about the spread of COVID-19 also would allow the Houthis to mobilize support from the private sector and international organizations. The WHO says priority for COVID-19 support is determined based on a country’s reported need, with the onus on national authorities to report cases and deaths. However, Houthi authorities have compelled aid organizations operating in northern Yemen not to disclose any information related to COVID-19 testing. The WHO, while reportedly pressuring the Houthi authorities to be more transparent regarding the pandemic outbreak, has not publicly questioned the group’s false messaging to the Yemeni people. The organization’s continued cooperation with Houthi authorities’ charade, however, is quickly making it an accomplice to the catastrophe.
To be certain, this is only the beginning of a terrifying new escalation in the tragedies visited upon Yemen during this ongoing war. Rampant COVID-19 transmission and exponential growth in cases and deaths is the only foreseeable outcome in the absence of almost any public protections or centrally guided response plan. This will further stress every social and economic system in a country already in collapse and on the cusp of famine. Even the Houthi authorities will be forced to respond at some point, but they have likely already squandered their window of opportunity for effective mitigation efforts. Instead, they have delivered death and suffering to countless Yemenis as a gift for Eid.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.