With an already shattered medical infrastructure due to the five-year US-Saudi siege, Covid-19 has rapidly spread through Yemen. The Arab country lacks the basic necessities for preventative measures like clean water, and a population facing malnourishment is especially vulnerable to the disease. A recent uptick in Saudi bombing might put a country already on the brink of collapse over the edge.
Last week, Saudi warplanes pounded Yemen’s capital Sanaa, in what residents called the worst airstrikes they have seen since the first years of the war. Seventy-seven airstrikes hit several provinces in north Yemen within 24 hours. According to the Houthi’s health ministry and NGOs on the ground, one of the strikes hit a car traveling in the Sadaa province and killed 13 civilians, including four children.
The Saudi-led coalition denies killing any civilians in the strike in Sadaa and claims the vehicle was carrying legitimate Houthi military targets. But the UN’s investigation of the airstrike seems to point to civilian deaths. In a statement last week, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, said initial field reports indicate at least 12 civilians, including four children, were killed in the airstrike. Grande called the strike a “terrible, unjustified attack.”
The coalition has good reason to deny the killing of civilians, especially children. The same day the news broke about the airstrike in Saada, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres removed the Saudi-led coalition from a list of parties that harm children in conflict zones. The UN chief said the coalition would “be delisted for the violation of killing and maiming, following a sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to airstrikes.” While the worst of the bombing occurred in the early days of the war, bombs continue to fall on civilians and children regularly in Yemen.
In February 2020, a coalition airstrike killed over 30 civilians, a group that included children, according to the Houthis. The February airstrike was retaliation against the Houthis for downing a Saudi warplane in the Jawf province, but like many airstrikes in Yemen, civilians paid the price.
A 45-day ceasefire to aid the coronavirus response was agreed to by both sides, which ended on May 23rd. Saudi airstrikes continued in this time, with bombings averaging five per day, and according to the Yemen Data Project, by the end of May, the rate of airstrikes returned to pre-ceasefire levels. In May, 53 percent of the targets the Yemen Data Project could identify were civilian targets, and at least three civilians were killed. Twenty-two air raids hit residential areas, seven strikes hit farms, and one hit a school.
In his report to the UN Security Council, Guterres said the US-backed Saudi-led coalition killed or wounded 222 children in 2019. The report also said the Houthis were responsible for 313 such casualties, and the forces of ousted President Abd-Rabbu Monsour Hadi, who the Saudis are fighting to put back in power, were responsible for 96 casualties. The Houthis and Hadi’s forces both remain on the UN’s children and armed conflict blacklist.
The increased airstrikes will likely exacerbate the coronavirus outbreak Yemenis are facing. A recent study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicts that up to 10 million people could be infected with coronavirus in Yemen, with between 62,000 and 85,000 deaths. The numbers represent the worst-case scenario, but with most Yemenis unable to regularly wash their hands, and only half of the country’s health care facilities functioning, the outbreak could reach such distressing levels.
Official numbers only put the number of confirmed cases in Yemen at 922 and the number of deaths at 254, but with the lack of medical infrastructure, there is no way of knowing the real figures. Reports out of the port city of Aden indicate the death rate is much higher than being recorded. In the first two weeks of May, the city recorded 950 deaths, nearly four times as high as the 251 deaths Aden saw in the whole month of March. It looks like May was the spike for the virus in Aden, government officials said the death rate for the city was down by 43 percent in the first 16 days of June.
On top of the coronavirus pandemic, Yemenis have suffered from the largest modern-day cholera outbreak. Since 2016, millions have been infected with cholera, and thousands have died. This is a direct result of the US-Saudi war on the country and serves as a window into the brutal tactics used to pacify Yemen. Treatment for cholera can be as simple as drinking clean water or taking antibiotics, but the Saudi-led coalition has regularly targeted water infrastructure, causing the disease to explode. According to the Yemen Data Project, from 2015 to 2020, warplanes from the Saudi-coalition have hit 97 water infrastructure targets in Yemen.
On top of the airstrikes and disease, Yemenis face acute food shortages, with 24 million people reliant on aid (about 80 percent of the population), and 10 million facing famine. The UN predicts soon over 17 million Yemenis will be “dealing with acute food insecurity.” To make matters in the country even worse, multiple aid organizations recently announced cuts to programs in Yemen. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) suspended aid to parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthis, which is where 70 percent of the country’s population lives.
In April, the World Food Program (WFP) cut the amount of food going into Houthi-controlled areas by 50 percent. These cuts come as the UN ended or reduced about 75 percent of its operations in Yemen. Both USAID and WFP cite Houthi obstruction as the reason for cutting aid. While Houthi obstruction may be an issue, aid organizations have previously had success negotiating with the Houthis.
Cutting aid over political issues highlights the danger of the US-Saudi naval blockade on Yemen, which essentially gives complete control to powers hostile to the Houthis of what goes in and out of the country. And whether Washington and Riyadh like it or not, the Houthis are the government in the areas where most Yemenis live, and those Yemenis are in dire need.
US support for the Saudi-led coalition is one of Washington’s greatest shames of the 21st century and a bipartisan shame as it was started under the Obama administration and eagerly continued by President Trump. While there have been valiant efforts to end the war in Congress, through vetoes, the Trump administration has ensured US support for the genocidal war will continue. Most recently, the administration announced the sale of $478 million in precision-guided missiles to the Kingdom.
Over 110,000 people have been killed directly by violence in Yemen since Saudi Arabia, the US, the UAE, and other Gulf countries started the war in 2015. The UN released a report in April 2019 that said if the conflict ended that year, it would have accounted for 233,000 deaths, the majority of deaths being children under five. Experts agree, if the US cuts off all support for the Saudi’s barbaric war, it would swiftly come to an end. The UN already called the situation in Yemen, “the World’s worst humanitarian crisis,” with coronavirus spreading the nightmare is only getting worse. It is time for the American people to demand an end to the war.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.