In the battle to survive an escalating humanitarian crisis, coronavirus is the last concern for Yemenis, a top humanitarian official told The National on Tuesday.
Individuals living in the Middle East’s most dangerous zones, such as refugee camps and areas of conflict, have more pressing worries than the virus that has killed more than 2 million people worldwide.
“Covid-19 is not number one. I was in Yemen, and I said, ‘oh my god it’s totally disconnected’. The priority for people in the region is to survive,” said Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Yemen is facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as war, hunger and aid cuts make daily life almost impossible for average Yemenis.
The conflict that erupted in 2015 broke Yemen’s healthcare system, leaving it incapable of coping with the pandemic or responding to other diseases.
Nearly 2 million children are acutely malnourished, and before coronavirus the country was struggling to cope with diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and cholera.
High levels of inflation, lack of electricity and fuel are making food, medicine and basic goods expensive for ordinary Yemenis to buy, making their lives extremely challenging.
“It’s not about health, it’s about the capacity to survive in these kinds of bleak environments. We shouldn’t look at the narrative of Covid through the eyes of the privileged, which in my view would be narrow,” Mr Carboni said.
He called on privileged states in Europe when allotting aid to consider how the virus affects countries battling other issues.
For conflict areas in the region, the devastating effects of war wrecks economies, making it harder for people to put food on the table or have access to proper health care, clean water and sanitation.
“I was in Yemen 10 days ago, just watching people in the streets, and you realise that people are not in good health. You don’t need a sophisticated needs assessment to know how Yemeni people are doing, you just have to watch,” Mr Carboni said.
“You see the kids going to school and many of them are skinny, you see this,” he said.
The ICRC believes that Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is a consequence of the political instability the country has faced since the war broke out in 2014.
“As a humanitarian organisation we should remind states, people and non-armed groups that what we call or they call a humanitarian crisis is a political one,” Mr Carboni said.
The humanitarian group cannot create peace to address the crisis in Yemen, Syria or Libya, he said. Instead, they take humanitarian action, which is the result of political failure.
“This is the call for 2021, it was the same in 2020 and 2019,” he said.
The relief group opened a coronavirus treatment centre, providing free care to all, in the Yemeni city of Aden on September 20.
The ICRC has repeatedly called for assistance for the 24 million Yemenis in need of aid. About 80 per cent of the population depend on relief to survive, and millions are on the brink of starvation.
Mr Carboni believes the international community needs a different perspective on what humanitarian action is to be able to tackle the challenges in the region.
“Humanitarian action needs to be sustainable for long-term effects to take place in the region,” Mr Carboni said.
Short-term responses, such as emergency action, are not sufficient enough to create major changes.
The ICRC will have a budget of 2.3 billion Swiss francs ($2.58bn) for 2021, he said.
Last year, the organisation made an appeal for 2.2 billion Swiss francs (CHF) to fund its field operations and headquarters. Their largest operations in terms of budget are in Syria (CHF191.6 million), South Sudan (CHF128.1m), Yemen (CHF120.9m), Iraq (CHF113.7m) and Nigeria (CHF104.6m).
Yemen alone is facing a funding crisis after the former US administration of president Donald Trump and other western counties last year decided to cut aid to prevent the Iran-backed Houthi rebels from blocking or diverting funds.
The move further compounded Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
“The only thing we can say is that the situation in Yemen is seriously traumatic,” he said.
Hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by donor countries during last year’s aid conference has not yet been paid.
The total submitted pledges amounted to only $1.61 billion, making it less than half of 2019’s funding.
“Some states are reprioritising their human resources towards their internal priority with Covid-19. Others are staying committed,” Mr Carboni said.
The deficit presents obstacles for the ICRC and Mr Carboni said it is challenging to ask states to increase their contribution.
“In our view, humanitarian action should be based on needs and not on political interest,” he said.
The ICRC found that some states have not stayed true to this principle, making it difficult for the organisation to remain a neutral actor in a conflict zone.
“Some say we will give you something but only if you assist those people, but not those ones and this is really hard for us. We try to explain our perspective, engage and not judge,” he said.
By averting this challenge, the organisation is prioritising and focusing on the most “needy states, countries that are most affected by violence and conflict”.