Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Staying home means starving to death for millions displaced in Yemen

by Amal Mamoon | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 May 2020 12:35 GMT

Jamil al-Saboot,40, sits in front of his tent in al-Kadaha camp for displaced people in Taiz. Taiz, Yemen, May 7, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Khalid al-Banna.

Image Caption and Rights Information

Coronavirus is spreading in war-torn Yemen and millions face the choice of heading out and risking infection or staying home and going hungry

Coronavirus is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Subscribe here for a daily briefing on how this global crisis is affecting cities, technology, approaches to climate change, and the lives of vulnerable people.

By Amal Mamoon

TAIZ, May 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Jamil al-Saboot and his family were told by a Yemeni aid agency to self-isolate to stop the spread of coronavirus, he knew he would not heed the advice.

For the 40-year old father of ten, uprooted by civil war and living in a tent on a hillside above the southwestern city of Taiz, staying home means giving up on life.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed inequalities around the world, with low-income workers from Bogota to London this week risking their health by returning to work in countries easing lockdowns, while wealthier people stay home.

In impoverished Yemen, where the pandemic is now taking hold, millions of displaced people face an even bleaker choice: head out and risk infection or stay home and go hungry.

"We are scared of coronavirus but we can't stay at the camp as we do not have enough food even for one day. Staying here means starving," said Saboot, dressed in a blue shirt and a traditional headscarf.

Coronavirus: our latest stories

Views of al-Kadaha camp in Taiz where hundreds of displaced families in dire need of basic services beg to survive. Taiz, Yemen, May 7, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Khalid al-Banna.

The arrival of the pandemic in Yemen in April - 184 cases have been confirmed - added to afflictions already facing the Arab World's poorest nation including widespread hunger and a major cholera outbreak.

Five years of war have left 80% of its population of more than 24 million relying on aid and 3.6 million displaced.

Healthcare services are collapsing.

68 out of 174 patients admitted to a COVID-19 treatment centre in Aden have died, Medicins Sans Frontieres said on Thursday, warning that people perishing from the disease are much younger than in Europe: mostly men between 40 and 60 years old.

Yemen's government has advised people to only venture out for necessities but there is little authorities can do to impose restrictions in the war-torn country, said Tamuna Sabadze, Yemen country director at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

"Each day Yemenis spend at home -- each day the market is closed -- they will be losing their income," she said. "If they don't have work they have to beg."

Jamil al-Saboot, 40, sits inside his tent in al-Kadaha camp together with his children where he has been living since he fled his home in 2017. Taiz, Yemen, May 7, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Khalid al-Banna.


Saboot was working as a day-labourer breaking stones on construction sites when he was forced to flee intense fighting in Taiz between forces loyal to exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebel movement in 2017.

His relief at having found safety for his family was tempered by his struggle to find work.

Now he is worried the new coronavirus could ravage the hillside camp where he and several hundred families share toilets and live in tents built of wood and tarp.

"It's overcrowded... the disease will spread in a dramatic way," he said.

Telecom companies are raising awareness about hygiene among Yemen's displaced through text messages.

Community volunteers advise families in camps to frequently wash their hands but it's a struggle for many who rarely have soap or sanitizer.

Nawal Ghalib, 30, a mother of six who suffers from gallstones sits with her baby in front of her tent in al-Kadaha camp for displaced families. Taiz, Yemen, May 7, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Khalid al-Banna.

The IRC and other humanitarian groups are trying to establish "green zone" areas within displaced person camps to isolate high-risk groups like the elderly and pregnant women from other residents.

"That requires the community themselves to be willing - that they understand the benefits of this strategy because you cannot force people to separate the elderly from their families," said Sabadze.

In the same Taiz camp, 30-year-old mother-of-six Nawal Ghalib gave birth recently and is worried about getting infected.

"The (visiting awareness) team told me that I'm more vulnerable to corona than anyone else," Ghalib said.

About 6 million women and girls of childbearing age in Yemen are in need of support and more than a million pregnant and lactating women are malnourished, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Ghalib is breastfeeding and with her youngest being only months old, she can't beg in the market. Her husband and children go instead.

"If not for begging and for generous people we would have died when we arrived in this camp," she said.

Related stories

Weakened by war and floods, Yemen fights twin health threat

Yemen could face 'catastrophic' food situation as pandemic worsens 

Aid to Houthi-controlled Yemen to be cut back over risk it can be diverted -sources

(Additional reporting by Ban Barkawi in AMMAN, Editing by Tom Finn, (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.