Emergency Relief

Will We Abandon Shattered, Starving Yemen to Rampaging COVID-19?

How Badly Is COVID-19 Affecting Yemen?

Very badly. As of mid-August 2020, according to UN estimates and reports from other humanitarian agencies, Yemen’s COVID-19 death rate has spiked to an unparalleled 30%. That is up from an egregiously high 15.9% in June, according to OCHA Yemen (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

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That’s an astounding 23% higher than the average coronavirus fatality rates for the worst-hit countries in the world. Many other nations with well-run public health care have 3% or lower mortality levels during this pandemic.

Why is Yemen’s Coronavirus Death Rate So High? 

Three causes have converged to crush Yemen’s people and allow coronavirus to run incalculably rampant and deadly among them.


Yemen has long been the poorest country in the Arab world, with nearly half its people (48.6%) living in poverty in 2014, according to the World Bank, up 13.4% from 2005. Poverty means people cannot afford or access something essential to sustain gainful, healthful life, including food, clean water, shelter, clothing, health care, education, and transportation. More than a third of Yemenis in 2014 (34.9%) suffered deprivation in multiple categories of these life essentials because of political instability, underemployment, and increasing conflict.

In financial terms, the poor consume less than $3.20 a day of life necessities, the International Poverty Line set by the World Bank. But almost 19% of Yemen’s poor at that time lived on $1.90 per day or less, the monetary red line for “extreme poverty.”

(2) WAR

The intervention of external powers ignited a society-ripping civil conflict and a murderous regional and internationally supported proxy war on March 19, 2015, devastating Yemen’s already precarious economy and frail infrastructure. By 2017, it had plunged the people of Yemen into the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” according to the United Nations.

Today, a staggering 80% of Yemen’s nearly 30 million people — 24 million — “live” on humanitarian assistance, 14.3 million of whom suffer acute need, according to an August 19, 2020, a report by UNOCHA. “Acute need” is a sanitized humanitarian term meaning these people live in dire daily need of food, water, or other essential lifesaving help. When it does not reach them, they die, or their life conditions dangerously deteriorate, within days.

“Severity of needs is deepening, with the number of people in acute need a staggering 27% higher than last year,” the UN report states. “Two-thirds of all districts in the country is already pre-famine, and one-third face a convergence of multiple acute vulnerabilities.”

Look at these horrific numbers:

  • 12 million children need humanitarian assistance

  • 10.2 million children lack access to basic health care

  • 17.8 million live without safe water and sanitation

  • 19.7 million lack adequate health care

  • 40%+ of Yemeni households have lost primary income

  • 2.3 million suspected cholera cases, the worst cholera epidemic in recorded history

  • 3,910 reported cholera deaths, 58% of them children

  • 7.8 million children out of school

And from an April 2019 UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) study (download here):

  • 233,000 deaths (102,000 from war; 131,000 due to lack of food, health services, infrastructure)

  • 1.6 million children (14%) suffer malnutrition

  • 140,000 child deaths under age 5

  • A child dies every 12 minutes, on average, because of the conflict

  • 36% of children have no school access

  • 40% of people live in extreme poverty

  • $89 billion lost economic output

Impact projections for 2022 if the conflict continues (same UNDP study):

  • 482,000 deaths

  • 1 child death every 7 minutes, on average

  • 331,000 child deaths under age 5

  • 24% of children malnourished

  • 31% of the population malnourished

  • 49.4% of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day)

  • $181 billion lost economic output

And should the conflict reach 2030:

  • 1.8 million dead

  • 1 child dead every 2 minutes, on average

  • 1.5 million children dead

  • 55% of children malnourished

  • 84% of the population malnourished

  • 48% of children without school access

  • 71% of people in extreme poverty

  • $657 billion lost economic output


War, from within and without, has decimated Yemen’s medical service capacities and response capabilities.

The World Bank estimates Yemen now has just three medical doctors for every 10,000 patients. More than 65 of its 333 districts have no physicians at all. Less than half of Yemen’s population can even access running water to do proper hand washing, vital protection against communicable diseases, especially coronaviruses.

Only half of the country’s approximately 3,500 health care facilities remain fully functional, the rest crippled or destroyed by relentless bombardments. Yemen’s 30 million people have access to a meager 500 ventilators (60 for children) and a mere 700 intensive care unit beds.

UN and humanitarian workers have sounded the alarm that Yemen’s shattered health care system has wildly underreported coronavirus cases and fatalities, with practically no means of knowing the real spread of coronavirus in the country, having tested a scant 3,000 of Yemen’s population.

Moreover, supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment: medical masks, gloves, gowns, etc.) to safeguard medical workers from the disease have dwindled. Unverified reports say the medical staff has died by the dozens while others have fled war’s spreading violence or seek to isolate from the pandemic’s growing reach.

Of the estimated third of Yemenis who can access health care, many refuse to risk the violence or fear the social isolation that may result from seeking it out.

In the face of such calamitous suffering, we may overlook a secondary deprivation that will afflict Yemen for years to come: the loss of developmental time and the growth structures that uplift society and its people.

“The ongoing conflict in Yemen has already reversed human development by 21 years,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. She notes that this U-turn in advancement is not a linear progression but “exponentially growing.” In other words, just one more year of conflict will set Yemen’s development back by 26 years. “That’s almost a generation,” she said.

Is the International Community Helping Yemen’s People? 

Unfortunately, international aid has dried up for political reasons — the U.S., a backer, military aid, and supplier of Yemen’s bombing, has dramatically cut its UN commitments in the last year; rich Gulf countries are conducting the war — and pandemic causes. As oil revenues have dried up, Yemen’s migrant workers have cut their usual annual $3.5 billion in remittances home an estimated 70%, to just over $1 billion. Oxfam reports that actual money transfers decreased by 80% in the first quarter of this year.

By April, the UN cut or cut back 31 of its 41 major humanitarian programs in Yemen.

“We’re talking food programs, health programs, water and sanitation programs, protection programs, shelter programs,” said Lise Grande, head of the UN’s Yemen humanitarian program.

About the same time, the World Health Program (WHO) — now under even more egregious financial pressure, again from U.S. defunding — projected a cut of 80% in its medical aid to Yemen, according to Grande. At that time, she estimated 16 million Yemenis would contract COVID-19 as a result of these humanitarian losses.

Last June, the UN tried to raise $2.4 billion for Yemen to offset its losses, but raised only $1.35 billion, and not all of those pledges have even come in. We now know the UN has received only $558 million for Yemen, a crippling 82% loss of payments from countries, according to UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock, who warned that its operational aid for Yemen teeters on the edge collapse, with only 18% of needed funds received.

These abstract dollar amounts add up to this: Yemen’s free fall into an abyss of extreme poverty, starvation, no clean water, no sanitation, little health care, and weakened immune systems; rampant cholera, dengue fever, and malaria plagues; and, now, a coronavirus community spread run amok.

All this reduces to a single outcome. Death.

How Can I Help? 

Zakat Foundation of America supporters and relief specialists have worked in Yemen nearly since the organization’s 2001 inception. Our global charity has developed a broad array of emergency, health care, food security, economic, and environmental programs in the country and established vital relationships and projects with local and international humanitarian partners.

War, disease, recent floods, and locust infestations have set the people of Yemen far behind the UN-established Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) timeline of 2030.

Our supporters and aid specialists continue to work with the people of Yemen with hope in the coming mercy and blessings of God and an eye toward a better future.

Zakat Foundation’s ongoing charity efforts in Yemen focus on mitigating the immediate effects of both its human-driven and natural catastrophes to help sustain Yemen’s afflicted through their profound daily emergency tests of loss and hardship.

Yet we deliberately and conscientiously invest a significant portion of our charitable aid at augmenting Yemen’s vital infrastructures, not only to keep them from total disintegration, but to build a foundation under them for a hope-filled tomorrow.

We design these relief efforts to create benefits like dramatically increased sesame seed production to feed the population with a rich local staple; food resilience programs that grow the number of independent farmers and equip them with scientific knowledge and profitable technology; and secondary market help that spreads the wealth horizontally through the population.

These efforts and more put Yemen’s young and future generations in a position to make up lost Sustainable Development Goal ground when their deliverance — God willing soon — comes.

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