The coronavirus crisis has dealt a new hammer blow to the economy of Yemen. It has left big impact on a country that was already torn apart by civil war, disease, and want. The country’s epidemic has had multiple effects in public health as well as among the general population. It has been, in effect, a crisis on top of a pre-existing crisis that Yemenis are experiencing now – conflicts and severe health challenges already have pervaded many regions of the country since the Saudi led-coalition began waging several airstrikes in Yemen in 2015.
In a place so often afflicted by crises even before the pandemic, our country and our society simply do not have the means to confront the pandemic. Whereas most of governments have taken precautionary measures to reduce the spread of the virus, all of these methods have been extremely difficult to implement in Yemen. Many things taken for granted elsewhere have proven to be a challenge too far for a system that is already under strain, from establishing specialist hospitals and quarantine centers to providing support to employees, individuals and companies as well as spreading awareness through various TV channels.
The result is a terrible feeling of helplessness and of powerlessness. Our ability to alleviate the severity of this epidemic and reduce the number of lives lost has been constrained at every moment. This has deepened the economic impact and prolonged the suffering.
This terrible conflict and now the coronavirus pandemic have had a particular impact on the lives of Yemenis and its people, who often go abroad in search of better earnings to send home to their families back home. The World Bank reported in its latest statement on the economic situation in Yemen that it expected global remittances to drop sharply by about 20% in 2020 due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. It attributed the expected decline, which will be the largest decline in recent history, to the drop in the wages of migrant workers, who are the most vulnerable to job losses and wages in their host countries.
As a consequence, the remittances sent to low- and middle-income countries are expected to decline by an estimated $445 billion. This will be a devastating loss of financial resources for many workers and their families across the world – and Yemen is also caught up in this vicious cycle. With so many Yemenis working abroad to try and provide for their families, this global trend is also having a cruel impact in Yemen itself.
I recently spoke to Amal, a mother of three children who lives in a rented house in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She told me that her husband works as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia on a work visa that was very difficult to obtain: after waiting for long years without any job, he was finally able to go abroad in search of better work.
Amal says: “We have been living through difficult days as we need to spend a lot of money to cover only our most basic needs and pay for school fees, so I hope this pandemic will pass as soon as possible.”
When Amal’s husband got work in Saudi, he started to send money back to his family to pay the monthly rent for the house, school fees and other general household needs. He also sends money back to his mother and father, who also rely on his support. This is just one example of how vital a single Yemeni working abroad can be to an entire family network.
With the spread of the Corona epidemic, however, the situation has changed. As the quarantine was applied in Saudi Arabia, Amal’s husband was not able to provide the money he used to send home before; he has been receiving half of his usual salary, which is not sufficient for his family’s needs and he has even been forced to borrow from his relatives and friends who live in Sana’a to keep himself and his family afloat.
Indeed, these networks are also a crucial resource for Yemen’s entire economy. The Acting Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Yemeni Banks Association, Mahmoud Qaid Naji, has recently emphasised the importance of remittances in supporting the Yemeni economy and enhancing the value of the local currency. It thus has a major role in financing the consumption requirements of Yemeni families, especially since the state’s oil and gas revenues have been significantly reduced.
Naji says that remittances have become the primary source for the influx of hard currency from abroad to Yemen during the period from 2015 until now, adding that these transfers are the current and only source of direct support for at least half of Yemen’s population. They accordingly play a prominent role in the importing of basic goods, especially with the depletion of central bank reserves and a general scarcity of resources in the country.
In light of all this, the financial and economic expert, Ahmed Saeed Shamakh, says that when it comes to assessing the toll of the virus, Yemen is the worst affected country in the Arab world. He says that the severe shortage of food and medical supplies is due to Covid restrictions and the fact that many workers and technicians remain under quarantine. On top of this, at a time when state expenditure is needed to help combat sharp economic contractions, the public debt had already skyrocketed by the end of 2019 and therefore severely constrained the possibility of substantial fiscal interventions at the outbreak of the epidemic.
The developed world may now be celebrating the prospect of vaccines being in sight for 2021 – but for Yemen and its diaspora across the globe, this latest crisis and its consequences are far from over.
If you would like to contribute towards alleviating the suffering in Yemen, you can donate to The Red Cross here.
Haitham al-Qaoud is a freelance journalist and human rights activist from Yemen.