Yemen could face a “nightmare” scenario aid groups have warned amid the coronavirus pandemic. It is one of several countries in the Middle East where ongoing conflict and division make it impossible to test for the virus or provide basic services to those who may be affected. Yemen, Libya and Syria had a combined total of only 51 cases on Sunday. Their neighbors have a combined total of more than 150,000 cases. It is not reasonable to conclude that countries like Syria have only 25 cases while neighboring Lebanon has 600 cases and Israel and Turkey have more than 60,000 cases, for instance.
Libya, Yemen and Syria have both been in civil war for much of the last decade. The Syria and Libya wars began with the Arab spring in 2011 while Yemen has suffered conflict for decades. These countries are devastated and poor. They are also divided. Syria is divided into three parts, with the Damascus government controlling western Syria and Turkey the north while US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces control the east. There are also some ten million displaced Syrians who have fled the war and re-settled internally or abroad.
Yemen is divided between a Saudi-backed Coalition that includes the official government and the Iranian-backed Houthis that control the hill country in the northwest of the country. There are also other breakaway groups, extremists and tribal fighters throughout other areas. Yemen has already suffered from famine and deprivation. Now it is threatened by a pandemic. It recorded its first case over the weekend.
Libya is divided between the Turkish and Qatar-backed government in Tripoli and Khalifa Haftar’s national army that is based in Benhgazi and backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudis, Russia and France. There are also extremist groups in Libya, such as ISIS remnants and others.
The way that testing is generally recorded for coronavirus is through the official governments of these countries. This means that when governments control only a small sliver of the country, they can only test in that area. But the UN and WHO and other international groups don’t mind this procedure, generally ignoring the rest of these countries and pretending that cases in them don’t exist. For instance eastern Syria, despite being run by the SDF which defeated ISIS and backed by the US-led Coalition, has had few if any testing kits. It lacks basic things like ventilators. Similarly there is no way to carry out official testing in Houthi-run areas of Yemen, even with a ceasefire coming into affect.
Systematically these countries in the midst of conflict are not potential hot spots for the virus growing uncontrolled. This will have ramifications for their neighbors, refugees and migrants. However as the world has become more isolationist amid the pandemic, closing borders and pushing lockdowns, these countries have fewer places to get support or recognition of the looming threat. It is not clear how the international community intends to aid ungoverned areas that border Libya and Yemen as well. This includes a swath of land from Somalia to Senegal where there are extremist groups and conflicts. Yet breakaway areas such as Somaliland say they need support against coronavirus. Similarly Sudan and Eritrea need monitoring for cases. There are so far no clear initiatives by international aid groups to deal with the problem. Millions of Syrian refugees have been left without answers. The only headlines that look at the problem predict a “nightmare” or disaster if the virus gets into closely-packed refugee camps or into ungoverned areas where different groups are at war. For public health officials the lack of data also means the problem cannot be addressed. The UAE has discussed the need to support Syria in the struggle against the virus. But it is not entirely clear how that will come about. The UN has indicated that the fight against coronavirus should mean more ceasefires in these countries. But the road map after the ceasefire is unclear.
Libyan authorities in Tripoli say they are racing against time to deal with the virus. But how can that include eastern and central Libya which Tripoli does not control. This is unclear. Groups like the UN don’t seem interested in arrangements such as working with eastern Libya via Egypt, or eastern Syria via northern Iraq. Instead these areas are largely treated like they don’t exist.