UN warns of new humanitarian crisis as COVID-19 looms over Yemen

Displaced people need sufficient aid to survive, UN says, adding virus is likely to be circulating in war-torn country.

    Yemen has reported one laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 case on April 10 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]
    Yemen has reported one laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 case on April 10 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

    The United Nations has said nearly one million displaced people in Yemen risk losing their shelter, warning of a dire funding shortfall and "a very real probability" that the new coronavirus is already circulating undetected in the war-torn country.

    Some $89.4m is urgently needed in coming weeks to keep life-saving aid programmes running, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday, adding that the shortfall threatens critical assistance for Yemenis and refugees "most vulnerable" to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

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    "Yemen is already considered to be the world's largest humanitarian crisis," UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told a virtual press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland.

    "The country is now also facing the overlapping threat of the coronavirus pandemic, and the impact of recent torrential rain and flooding."

    Mantoo said more than 100,000 people across Yemen have been affected by recent floods, according to initial reports.

    'Virus probably circulating'

    On April 10, Yemen reported its only laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 case, a 60-year-old port official who has since recovered and tested negative for the virus, Yemen's coronavirus committee said on Monday.

    Yet, inadequate testing and a shattered health system have sparked fears the actual number of coronavirus cases could be higher in a country whose population has been weakened by widespread hunger and disease after more than five years of fighting. 

    In a separate statement on Tuesday, the office of the UN aid chief in Yemen said, "There is now a very real probability that the virus has been circulating undetected and unmitigated within communities," based on transmission patterns and given the time passed since Yemen reported its first case.

    "Since the first confirmed COVID case, we have warned that the virus is now in Yemen and may quickly spread," Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, was quoted as saying in the statement.

    "The factors are all here. Low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability and a fragile, overwhelmed health system."

    Yemen's war between Houthi rebels and pro-government troops escalated in March 2015, when a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition intervened against the rebels who still control large parts of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.

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    More than 3.5 million internally displaced people, returnees, refugees and asylum seekers are now reliant on regular humanitarian aid to survive, according to the UN.

    Approximately 80 percent of Yemen's population, or 24 million people, rely on aid, and 10 million are facing famine.

    One significant donor, the US Agency for International Development, cut funding last month over concerns that Houthi authorities were hindering aid distribution.

    The Houthis have dismissed the charges as baseless.

    In mid-April, the World Food Programme said it had halved food aid to Houthi-controlled areas.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies