Saudi Arabia has confirmed it will host a virtual donors’ conference next week for Yemen together with the United Nations, which has said the conflict-riven nation risks being overwhelmed by the coronavirus.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency on Friday cited a directive from King Salman confirming Tuesday’s donor conference with which the UN aims to raise $2.4bn in one of the biggest aid operations so far.
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“If we don’t get the funding we need and if more isn’t done to suppress the virus, COVID-19 could engulf Yemen,” Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement.
Millions of people need aid in Yemen, whose government was removed from the capital, Sanaa. by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in 2014. The next year, a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power.
Yemen has reported nearly 300 infections and 55 deaths so far, amounting to a fatality rate of 20 percent, compared with a global average estimated by the UN at seven percent.
Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), last week said aid workers in Yemen were forced to turn people away because of a lack of medical oxygen or sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised over Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the donor conference, given that it has been accused of war crimes in Yemen.
Laerke said the UN had voiced concerns “forcefully and vocally” over alleged abuses committed by all the sides in the five-year war.
He, however, added that Saudi Arabia was also the largest humanitarian donor to Yemen in recent years.
“They gave very large amounts of money. They gave it unconditionally, no strings attached,” he said, adding that the billions in Saudi donations had helped fight cholera outbreaks and looming famines.
War-ravaged Yemen, whose malnourished population has among the world’s lowest immunity levels to disease, is divided between the Saudi-backed government based in Aden and its foe, the Houthi group in the north.
The war has left tens of thousands of people dead, most of them civilians, and the UN says around 24 million Yemenis – more than two-thirds of the country’s population – rely on some form of aid.