Melissa McRae: Yemen still remains an afterthought for the international community

The scale of suffering in Yemen is hard to grasp, but should be impossible to ignore

After over two and half years of devastating conflict, a massive cholera outbreak, and a near total blockade of the country that brought humanitarian operations to a halt, Yemen somehow still remains an afterthought for the international community—and those who can change that remain seemingly indifferent.  

The scale of suffering in Yemen is hard to grasp, but should be impossible to ignore. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has treated more than 64,000 people wounded as a result of this war—just a fraction of the true number of injured people. The UN estimates that more than 10,000 men, women, and children have been killed in the conflict, but this too is almost certainly well below the true figure. It does not, for example, take into account the thousands of Yemenis who have died of otherwise preventable or chronic medical conditions as their public health services have crumbled.

And yet things continue to deteriorate. On 6 November, the Saudi-led coalition cut off most of Yemen from the outside world for a full 14 days. Humanitarian flights—already the only planes allowed to land in the capital, Sana’a, for years—were blocked during this period, preventing medical care getting to Yemenis in dire need.

The rapid, but by no means inevitable, spread of cholera across Yemen this year is just one example of how much suffering has been inflicted on Yemen. As Yemen’s water and sanitation services collapsed and its health centres closed, the disease thrived, causing almost one million people to suffer needlessly. Now there may be a resurgence, as the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade drives fuel and water shortages, and prevents people from being able to afford transportation to the few health facilities that remain functional.

Compounding this, many Yemeni families have been left financially devastated as, for over a year, most of the estimated 1.2 million Yemeni civil servants have received no salaries, including tens of thousands of public sector health workers across the country. This has left them, and the millions of family members who depend on them, on the brink of destitution.  

Not only have salaries gone unpaid, but hospital operating budgets have vanished, supply chains have been strangled by economic warfare and blockaded ports, and hospitals have been attacked by all sides of the conflict. Medical staff have been harassed, threatened, and killed; the sick and wounded have been denied treatment; and the neutrality of medical care has continually been violated.

None of this happened by chance. It is the result of military objectives trumping concern for the lives of Yemeni civilians, alongside indifference and indecision on the part of the international community. Weeks after the Saudi-led coalition blockade, that indifference remains glaringly obvious.

The responsibility to pay the salaries of civil servants lies with those who claim to govern—that is indisputable. The responsibility to protect civilians and allow humanitarian operations lies with all parties to the conflict—that too is indisputable. But those who claim a humanitarian motive—including states, UN agencies, donors, international non-governmental organisations and all those who denounce the suffering in Yemen—also have a responsibility to act. What is being done in Yemen today to respond to the crisis falls far short of what is possible, let alone what is needed. The complexity and scale of people’s needs cannot be an excuse for further inaction.

MSF does not have a solution for reversing the collapse of Yemen’s public health system—we know that cannot happen while Yemen remains at war. We know what we do will never be enough, but we cannot allow that to prevent us from doing what we can now.

Empty gestures and unfulfilled promises by the international community only undermine the collective credibility of humanitarian organisations, eroding trust in our abilities and making it harder for us to help those in need. The international community must respond now to the needs of Yemenis who are being denied even basic healthcare. The Saudi-led coalition must continue to grant unrestricted access into all areas of Yemen for humanitarian assistance. The absence of political will to force warring parties to meet their irrefutable obligations only helps to condemn Yemen to further destitution.

Children need vaccinations to avoid the further spread of diphtheria and nutritional support needs to be provided to the malnourished. Chronic diseases persist and pregnant women experiencing complications need emergency care. The conflict continues to mentally and physically traumatise civilians and outbreaks of diseases remain a threat.

Yemen’s health system could do far more, but not without unimpeded humanitarian access to and within Yemen, and urgent action to provide salaries for Yemeni health workers, so they can continue saving lives. What is missing is the will—and most of all a sense of urgency.

Melissa McRaeMedical Coordinator MSF, Yemen.

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Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) works in 13 hospitals and health centres in Yemen and provides support to more than 20 hospitals or health centres across 11 Yemeni governorates. With nearly 1,600 staff, and financially supporting 1,200 public health staff in the health facilities we manage and support, Yemen is among MSF´s largest missions around the world.