WHO orders staff to cease work in Yemen’s Houthi-held areas

UN agency cites ‘credible threats and perceived risks’ that could impact staff security for operational pause.

Staff of the Yemeni civil defense wearing protective gear, prepare to spray disinfectant during a demonstration of an anti-proliferation training of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, in Sanaa, Yemen, 12 Apr
The staff of the Yemeni civil defence prepare to spray disinfectant in the capital Sanaa [Yaya Arhab/EPA-EFE]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has ordered its staff out of Houthi rebel-held areas in war-torn Yemen, a move sources said aimed to pressure the group to be more transparent about suspected coronavirus cases.

A WHO directive issued late on Saturday notified staff in Sanaa, the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the northern province of Saada, and the central province of Ibb that “all movements, meetings or any other activity” for staff in those areas were paused until further notice.

The WHO order was issued because of “credible threats and perceived risks which could have an impact on staff security”, the agency said, adding operations were not suspended.

The United Nations is operating under the assumption there is now full-blown transmission in Yemen, the WHO said.

“We are competing for resources and supplies in the global market – and a country’s ‘priority status’ in terms of who receives what for COVID-19 is directly linked to how many cases are in country and the need – it is the numbers,” it said.

The UN has “systematically for weeks now” advised on case declaration and reporting, but the decision to do so rests with local authorities, the WHO added.

Coronavirus cover-up?

Three sources told Reuters news agency the WHO had taken the measure to press Houthi authorities to report results of tests for COVID-19.

The Saudi Arabia-backed government has accused Houthi authorities of covering up an outbreak in Sanaa, a charge the group denies.

The WHO says it fears COVID-19 could rip through Yemen as the population has some of the lowest levels of immunity to disease compared with other countries. Minimal testing capacity has added to concerns.

The five-year war between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement has shattered Yemen’s healthcare system and left its population weakened by hunger and disease.

About 80 percent of the population, or 24 million people, rely on humanitarian aid and 10 million are at risk of starvation.

War-ravaged Yemen, one of the countries most vulnerable to disease, is divided between the internationally recognised government temporarily based in the south and the Houthi group that removed it from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014.

Donor conference

The Saudi-backed government has so far reported 34 cases of the novel coronavirus with seven deaths in territory it controls, while the Houthis, who hold most large urban centres, have recorded just two cases with one death.

Saudi Arabia will host a donor conference to support Yemen on June 2, state media reported on Sunday.

The conference will be held virtually in partnership with the UN, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

The kingdom did not say how much money was expected to be raised from the event, or what it was earmarked for.

The conflict between government forces and the Houthis escalated in March 2015, when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened against the rebels after they overran much of the country.

The war has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians.

Source: News Agencies