The world today is grappling with an unprecedented crisis. More than 900,000 people have already fallen to the scythe of the grim reaper and more are feared to become its victim as winter approaches. Once an ominous refrain from the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming", it has now become a real fear, as world leaders are grappling to prepare their nations and people to fight Covid-19 during the winter, when it supposedly becomes more sinister and resilient.
The crisis for the people of Yemen, however, is on a different level altogether. People there—of all ages, but especially the children and the pregnant—are dying in scores, not only because of the super-spreading, apparently unstoppable virus, but also because of a very easily avoidable reason: hunger. Of course there are other factors as well.
Five years of war, worsening flood conditions exacerbated by the ripple effects of the war, locust threat, spiralling Covid-19 outbreak in the backdrop of the an already crumbling healthcare infrastructure, and most importantly dwindling aid, have made the situation worse for the people of Yemen.
The people there are starving, dying, and at times hoping to die in search of respite from the pain of constant pangs of hunger. There are expecting mothers whose children are dying at childbirth, there are parents whose plea for help, for support, for the survival of their young children are being turned down by helpless aid workers who are left with no aid. There are the sick who are slowly making their passage to the other world with no treatment. And then there are those who are helplessly watching their children, parents, and families wither away in front of their very eyes, with nothing to do but pray for an afterlife that is less cruel.
Added to these woes is the unjustified suspension of essential US fund for Yemen by the Trump administration. The situation in Yemen is so dire that leaders of Oxfam America, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE, Save the Children and Mercy Corps, jointly said that, "The most significant challenge to sustained life-saving humanitarian action today is the severe shortfall in funding, which has been exacerbated by the US suspension."
At this point, one might rightfully question the reason behind the US suspension of funds. The answer is simple: the Houthis have a history of levying tax on aid and blocking them from reaching the people in need. However, the scenario seems to have changed recently, with the USAID's acting administrator, and the chiefs of some major aid groups working in Yemen, in a letter suggesting that in view of the "improved humanitarian access" in Houthi-controlled areas, US fund can be resumed. Adding that, "our ability to do so now is jeopardised unless the US changes course...Time is running out for tens of millions of Yemenis."
But despite the pleas the US has not moved an inch from its hardline stance against sending funds to Iranian-backed Houthi controlled territories where around 70 to 80 percent of Yemenis live. And while halting aid to the helpless Yemenis, the US keeps selling arms to the Saudis fuelling the destruction in Yemen. According to an ABC News report, "the State Department's federal watchdog found the Trump administration had not done enough to minimise civilian casualties as the US provides arms, including precision-guided bombs, to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia." And not just the US, the United Kingdom, France and Canada have also contributed to the war in Yemen by selling arms to the Saudis.
But time is running out for Yemenis. 50,000 children, many of them newborns, die in Yemen every year, as per data released by the Houthi-linked Ansar Allah movement in March this year. Saif al Hadri, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health in Sanaa, revealed to TRT Arabi that, "one child dies every ten minutes in Yemen", adding that, "80 percent of children in Yemen live in a state of stunting and anaemia due to malnutrition."
According to Unicef, "the number of malnourished children could reach 2.4 million by the end of the year, almost half of all under-fives. An additional 30,000 children could develop life-threatening severe acute malnutrition over the next six months." And children die, day after day, of hunger, of malnourishment and of related complication. Expecting mothers also die. On June 14, 2019, Unicef said that one woman and six newborn die every two hours in Yemen due to complications.
And as late as May this year, the United Nations warned that around 48,000 women might die of child-birth related complications, as it had to shut down 140 of the 180 facilities it used to run in Yemen due to shortage of fund, affecting some 320,000 women.
As the war continues to unleash havoc in Yemen, "medical and water infrastructure has been hit during air raids at an average of once every 10 days during the conflict—damage that has not just killed civilians, but also disrupted access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation", suggested Oxfam and the Yemen Data, as mentioned in the same report by ABC News.
In the midst of the chaos and confusion, the efforts to contain Covid-19 have also been hampered as "three quarantine centres have been hit by airstrikes" since mid-March, reported ABC News citing Civilian Impact Monitoring Project.
And aid keeps getting scarcer. The UN on September 23 said that aid to around 300 health centres in Yemen was being stopped due to lack of funds. So far only USD 1 billion of the required USD 3.2 billion has been received. And the days ahead look bleak.
While the Saudis—a major player in the five year long war that has torn the nation apart—has signed deals to provide an additional USD 200 million in aid to Yemen through the United Nations, the aid is as uncertain as it is farcical. For one, of the USD 500 million aid that Saudi had announced earlier this year for Yemen, the UN has so far received only a paltry USD 23 million as disclosed by the organisation to CNN. And one cannot deny that the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen has had catastrophic economic impacts on the nation in the first place. Of course, other nations are pledging funds. But would those funds be enough and even be delivered in time? That remains to be seen.
For now, as aid dwindles in the wake of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the world watches the spectre of famine, death and devastation unfold in front of their eyes with inertia. After all, this is happening so many miles away from our homes. Every country has its own problems to deal with, economic, societal, and of course, the Covid-19 outbreak that has stolen the limelight. So what that infants are dying, the unborn are dying, children are dying in another country. They are other's children, children we have not seen, nursed or ever held. And there are so many of them in number that they are almost faceless, or perhaps they look identical: the same hollow eyes, the same ribs jutting out of the chest, the same bones sticking out of their shoulders. For the ones who are lucky, medical tubes are connected to their noses, or IV saline catheter pushed into their hands. For the unlucky ones, there is only one place to go: six feet under.
But so what? As long as our children are well fed and happy, who cares about what happens to the children of Yemen.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem