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UNICEF: Yemen now facing “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”

Five years of civil war has left Yemen decimated since March 2015, where children have become the most vulnerable collateral damage in a war fought by adults. The onset of COVID-19 in Yemen means they face a pandemic with alarming shortages in clean water and soap, on top of existing epidemics of cholera and vaccine-preventable diseases.

UNICEF released a report in June describing Yemen as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”. Over 35 frontlines remain active across the country as violence persistently blights lives, leaving 12.3 million children in desperate need of humanitarian aid. A global pandemic is just one emergency layered upon the reality that Yemen’s health services are on the verge of collapse as 10.2 million children do not have access to basic healthcare and health workers are going unpaid for 3 years amidst a ravaged economy.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health revealed that more than 6,600 children under the age of five in Yemen could die over the next six months from preventable conditions such as diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and malnutrition, as COVID-19 weakens already fragile health systems and disrupts life-saving services.

UNICEF’s spokesperson for Yemen, Harriet Dwyer, described a funding crisis with dire consequences if the global community fails to act.

“Heartbreakingly, we may have to turn off water to 3 million children if we don’t receive the funding we need by the end of July,” Dwyer said.

“By the end of August, if we don’t receive funding, critical health services and nutritional services will be cut off to families in need.”

UNICEF is currently the world’s largest humanitarian response program in Yemen, where the very services keeping children alive are facing an economic crisis.

Yemen suffered the world’s worst cholera outbreak in April 2017 with more than 2.39 million suspected cases and over 3,795 deaths. The disease remains pervasive today, where a quarter of those affected are children under the age of five years old.

Vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria and measles have resurged in waves over the past five years. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, current disruptions in global supply chains post a threat to vital vaccination campaigns, as much-needed vials may never reach the country.

Plagued by one the world’s worst food crises, 2 million children under the age of five are malnourished, including life-threatening severe acute malnutrition. Chronic malnutrition has stunted 45% of children under the age of five, leaving them too short for their age and with irreparable damage to their cognitive development.

Dwyer argued that the solution is two-fold. First, a longer-term peace resolution must be sought. In the meantime, urgent humanitarian programs need to be continued in the communities.

“We need every country in the world, all of the global community, to make sure that we continue to advocate for a peaceful solution to the war in Yemen and making sure that the experiences of children are given the attention that they deserve,” Dwyer said.

“While that takes place, we need to be able to keep providing [children] with the life-saving assistance that’s keeping them alive. And for that, we need funding.”

A global pandemic amidst a civil war poses an emergency on top of an already dire situation in Yemen, where children with devastating odds to survive have gone ignored for half a decade. What’s left is the perfect storm as COVID-19 threatens to wipe out a vulnerable health system in a country where clean water and soap have been scarce for years.

UNICEF spokesperson Harriet Dwyer reflected on how Yemen has long been a forgotten war in the political consciousness of world leaders and the wider global populace.

“People really haven’t acknowledged the gravity of the situation there for many, many years, but we all have a responsibility to,” Dwyer said.

“I know everyone is facing chaos and crisis in their own countries right now, but the scale of suffering there needs the world to pay attention.”

The Yemen appeal page is available for donations here: https://www.unicef.org.au/appeals/help-children-in-yemen.

Image Credit: UNICEF (Photo taken in Sana’a by Dhia Al-Adimi)

“Jabra is seven years old. She is learning the correct way to wash her hands. She is also learning about Corona. She is learning how to prevent the spread of Corona, and what to do if someone is infected with it.”

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