Analysis. On the five-year anniversary of the start of the war in Yemen, medical teams there report no coronavirus cases, and flights to and from the capital have been suspended. An outbreak there would devastate the civilian population even further.

Mission impossible: avoid a coronavirus outbreak in Yemen

Five years ago, on March 25, 2015, a coalition of Saudi-led Sunni countries launched Operation Resolute Storm against the Houthi movement in Yemen.

It started one of the most brutal wars of this millennium, which devastated the poorest country in the Gulf, its social structure, infrastructure, healthcare and education system. According to data from the Houthi Army, over 257,000 air raids have been carried out by the coalition in Yemen since March 2015.

Oxfam also reports shocking numbers: in the last five years, on average, one civilian has died due to the war every three and a half hours. With every passing hour, 90 more people have become displaced, 50 have fallen ill with cholera and over 100 have entered the hell of malnutrition. This has been happening every hour since 2015.

And the war is still continuing. The situation will only be made worse by the arrival of the coronavirus, which will join the existing scourges of cholera, dengue fever and starvation. Both sets of authorities in Yemen—the Houthi in the north, the official government allied with Riyadh in the south—have been taking the first measures: flights to and from Sana’a are suspended for two weeks and the schools are closed.

One could take heart at hearing about such measures, were it not for the fact that this is a conflict that has killed almost 100,000 people, who have died from hunger, disease or air raids. Schools, just like hospitals, have been systematically targeted by the Saudi-led coalition, and the air and naval blockade imposed by Riyadh has already kept the country de facto closed off from the outside world for years.

To the south, in the provisional capital of Aden, the pro-Saudi government is calling in doctors from neighboring regions to train them on how to deal with the coronavirus epidemic, expecting the imminent arrival of patient zero.

There are still no official cases reported, but it’s possible they are remaining hidden due to the impossibility of identifying them. The inability of the healthcare system to cope with a new epidemic is self-evident: there are not enough hospitals—which have been destroyed or abandoned—there is not enough equipment or medical staff, and 17 million people out of a total of 22 million do not even have continuous access to drinking water.

The World Health Organization is well aware of these facts and has begun the distribution of testing kits: “The health system is operating at around 50% capacity” in Yemen, said the representative of the WHO in the country, Altaf Musani, and the disease would “greatly overstretch it.” “It is a perfect storm of a disaster should this virus introduce itself,” he added.

The WHO is cooperating with both sides of the conflict, but the mission looks like an impossible one: at the moment, according to Musani, 200 coronavirus test kits have been sent to Sana’a and 300 to Aden—a drop in the ocean. Aid from the World Bank is also on the table, with $26.7 million meant for the government in Aden only.

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