Yemen at tipping point as Covid-19 second wave hits amid renewed fighting and famine fears

Published: 23rd March 2021

Evidence is mounting that a second wave of Covid-19 is already underway in Yemen, Oxfam warned today, with a 22-fold increase in recorded cases in recent weeks. It comes at a time when it is feared renewed fighting will force hundreds of thousands of people to flee to safety.

Oxfam said that a second spike would be devastating for a country entering its seventh year of war.  The UN is already warning that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades and amid intense fighting in Marib governorate which it is feared will force almost 400,000 people to flee. The arrival of the rainy season - expected in May - is expected to see a renewed threat from cholera, which combined with Covid will overwhelm a health system battered by six years of war and economic collapse. Despite this huge level of need Yemen’s aid programme is more than 50 per cent underfunded.

Recorded cases of Covid in the first two weeks of March were 22 times higher than the number of cases in the first two weeks of February.  The figures indicate a sharp rise in the number of people being admitted to healthcare facilities with severe symptoms as these are the only people who are tested.

Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen said:

 “Yemen is at a tipping point – millions of people are already teetering at the edge of a precipice, now Covid, cholera and an intensification of the conflict threatens to push them over.

“In cities around the country people are living through intensified fighting and a second Covid spike. Many people don’t go to hospital when they have symptoms – even where treatment is available many cannot afford medical bills.

“With little testing, we can’t quantify the true scale of the problem, but we do know that Covid is accelerating fast. I’m hearing daily of fresh tragedies – people who have died of Covid-like symptoms without receiving medical attention.”

Oxfam said it was concerned that by forcing people to flee for safety, the recent surge in fighting will speed the spread of the virus around the country.

The escalation in hostilities around Marib, where a number of Covid cases have been reported recently, is one of a number of worrying developments as the war in Yemen enters its seventh year.  Renewed fighting around Taiz, Hajjah, Hudaydah and Aldhale’e which have seen multiple airstrikes and renewed tensions in Aden and have brought fresh misery to those cities.

Since February, more than 11,000 IDPs in Marib have been displaced again, with some entire camps forced to evacuate. Many have been displaced four or five times as the frontlines of Yemen’s war have shifted. Local officials have told Oxfam they think the UN figure is an underestimate and as many as 3 million people are actually displaced in the area.

More than 4 million people have so far been displaced by the conflict and nearly 68 per cent of Yemenis need humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates 1.2 million people have fled to Marib, which until recently was considered relatively safe and hosts the largest internally displaced population in Yemen. 

Muhsin Siddiquey said: “People in Marib are desperate, they face a stark choice between staying put risking their lives and their children’s lives or fleeing into the desert where there is no water or food.

“In cities around the country people are living through intensified fighting and a second Covid spike. I’m hearing terrible reports of children being killed, houses in residential districts being hit and people being forced to flee.”   

Official figures record 3418 cases and 751 deaths from Covid in Yemen giving a mortality rate of nearly 22 per cent - one of the highest in the world. But with little testing and widespread reports of illness and deaths, the actual Covid death toll is undoubtedly far higher. So far no-one in Yemen has been vaccinated against Covid, although the country is expecting to receive vaccines later this month. 

Yemen’s health system is estimated to be operating at half of its pre-war capacity despite the massively increased need for it. Many healthcare staff have been unpaid for months while there are just 700 ICU beds and 500 ventilators for a population of 30 million.

The country has struggled with cholera since the world’s worst outbreak began five years ago with more than 2 million reported cases.

Earlier this month the UN held a donor pledging conference asking for $3.85 billion but received less than $1.7 billion, less than was received in 2020 and $1 billion less than the amount pledged at the 2019 conference.

Muhsin Siddiquey, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen said: ““Even people who escape the missiles and bullets face a daily struggle to survive in the face of disease and destitution. Yemenis have suffered for six long years – it is time for the world to say, enough.

“This is a man-made conflict and these deaths are avoidable. With efforts from the UN Envoy and a recommitment to peace from the new US administration, the international community must seize this moment to collectively pressure all sides to end the suffering. Peace is possible if governments put lives ahead of politics.”

Notes to editors


Contact information

Tania Corbett | | +44 7824 824 359

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