The Yemeni National Emergency Committee identified the war-torn country’s first COVID-19 case in the oil-rich southern province of Hadhramout on Friday April 10.
The patient, from the small port city of Ash Shihr, “is stable and receiving medical attention,” according to the committee’s Twitter. They provided no further information on the case.
The international community has grave concerns that COVID-19 will have a “catastrophic” impact on Yemen. Even prior to the first COVID-19 diagnosis in the conflict-stricken country, The World Health Organization warned that Yemen’s coronavirus “preparedness must be stepped up.”
The primary barrier to improving preparedness for a disease outbreak in Yemen is the bitter civil war that has consumed the country for the past five years.
The United Nations in Yemen estimates 80% of the population, or some 24.1 million Yemenis, require aid and protection, making the country’s devastation the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. The war has pushed the health system to “the brink of collapse,” the UN states. Aid agencies regularly report that Houthi rebels interfere with their efforts to support the needy.
On April 8, the Saudi-led coalition announced a unilateral, comprehensive two week ceasefire starting from Thursday April 9. According to spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki the truce was called to allow for discussions about the coronavirus response and with a view to recommencing stalled UN-sponsored peace talks.
The US State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker welcomed Al-Malki’s announcement and encouraged the Houthis to follow during a special briefing on Iraq and the Middle East.
“They [Houthi rebels] continue to obstruct humanitarian deliveries, to skim from these deliveries to fund their own war effort. This is just exacerbating the pain and suffering of the Yemeni people, and so we encourage them to, one, join the ceasefire; and two, to end their problematic humanitarian practices,’ the US top Middle East diplomat said on April 9.
The Houthi rebels have so far rejected the coalition ceasefire, and instead submitted their own roadmap to peace in Yemen to the United Nations.
“We will continue to fight and target their military installations and industrial sites since they continue with the siege. So we don’t consider it to be a ceasefire,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti told Al Jazeera on April 9.
“There has to be a total end of the siege or else the war will continue,” he said.
A day earlier, fellow rebel spokesman Mohammad Abdulsalam revealed on Twitter the Houthi’s had provided their own vision for peace to the UN.
“[Our proposal] will lay the foundations for a political dialogue and a transitional period,” Abdulsalam tweeted on April 8.
The possibility of a bilateral truce still seems unlikely although it was fleetingly discussed at the end of March, following UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for a worldwide truce in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
It remains to be seen if the discovery of COVID-19 in Yemen will galvanise the recalcitrant Houthi militia into agreeing to a ceasefire or if they will continue hostilities in spite of the coronavirus threat.