The first confirmed coronavirus infection in Yemen was identified in a 60-year-old man on Good Friday. No additional cases have been reported since then, but that can hardly be for lack of transmission, for it’s difficult to imagine a country more ill-equipped to fight COVID-19’s spread. This small Middle Eastern nation has endured five years of violence, blockade, starvation, and epidemic, and its medical system was ravaged before the pandemic began. The United Nations considers Yemen’s condition the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—and it’s a crisis to which our government contributes.
Located at the southern edge of Saudi Arabia and bordering the Red Sea, Yemen is thought to be the home of the biblical queen of Sheba, and perhaps only biblical language can adequately convey its confluence of miseries. The prophets’ mournful condemnations of violence and oppression all find expression in Yemen: The combatants’ “feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways.The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths” (Isa. 59:7–8, NRSV). Yemen illustrates all too well the way sin flows from sin (Ps. 7:14–16) and how human and natural evil can conspire in our fallen world.
When Yemen’s civil war began in 2015, it was little noticed in the United States. Widely ignored too was the Obama administration’s decision to support a coalition intervention led by Saudi Arabia to back the Yemeni government and oppose the Houthi rebels challenging its power. Then-President Barack Obama never obtained congressional authorization for US involvement in this war, as required by the Constitution, and President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution to end American involvement last year.
While neither administration permanently planted any significant number of US boots on the ground in Yemen, both backed the coalition even as it racked up credible accusations of war crimes. Washington sold the Saudi coalition weapons, including a bomb used in the Saudi school bus strike that killed 40 children. Our military’s intelligence sharing informed the coalition’s air campaign as it bombed civilian targets like hospitals, schools, markets, refugee camps, weddings, funerals, food factories, and water treatment plants.
That damage to clean water sources fueled in Yemen the largest cholera outbreak on record in world history. Cholera is a waterborne disease in which diarrhea and vomiting cause catastrophic dehydration, and Yemeni cholera cases are estimated at more than 2 million in a population of 28 million. The same poor hygiene conditions that help cholera spread will spread COVID-19 too.
But the US-backed coalition’s single most harmful tactic is its ongoing blockade of Yemen’s airports and seaports. Ostensibly intended to prevent the Houthis from obtaining weapons from Iran, it has produced famine conditions and severe shortages of medical supplies. Yemen is a desert nation that must import 90 percent of its food, so under siege, Yemen is starving. Photos of malnourished Yemeni children call to mind Holocaust victims. A Yemeni child of five years or younger dies of starvation and other preventable causes every 12 minutes.
Between war casualties, cholera, and starvation, Yemen’s medical system has long been overwhelmed. Only half its hospitals are functioning normally. Medicine and equipment are in short supply, and many doctors and nurses worked without pay until outside aid groups began to cover some salaries. There is no scenario in which Yemen can be prepared for the coronavirus. There is no scenario in which Yemeni COVID-19 patients will receive the care they need.
But there is a scenario in which the United States could stop adding to Yemen’s suffering: We could stop assisting the Saudi coalition. Politically, this should be an easy sell: It has bipartisan support in Congress and among Americans aware of the war. It would not jeopardize US security—the Houthis have only local ambitions, and the power vacuum of civil war helps terrorist organizations rather than curbing them, most notably al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). (AQAP-linked fighters have even obtained American weapons and armored vehicles flowing into Yemen via coalition forces.)
US military withdrawal from Yemen’s conflict is no guarantor of peace. It will not rebuild hospitals or control epidemics. But it would make the coalition intervention impossible to continue, at least at its current scale. That could push Saudi Arabia and its allies to reach a peace deal or long-term ceasefire with the rebels after multiple failed negotiations. And it could well break the blockade, allowing in vital food and medical aid.
Open ports and a decline in violence in Yemen would give Christians an opportunity to serve the Yemeni people in ways that are now all but impossible. A NGO worker in Yemen told me few of the aid organizations that have managed to stay active in the country are affiliated with churches. That is partly because Yemen is a dangerous place for Christians, this worker emphasized. A mass shooting in 2016 included four nuns and a priest among its victims; international Christian aid workers were kidnapped and killed in 2009; and three Southern Baptist missionaries were martyred in Yemen in 2003. The Yemeni Christian population is extremely small and subject to persecution (conversion from Islam is prohibited). That likely won’t change however the civil war concludes, as neither the Yemeni government nor the Houthi rebels respect religious freedom. Yemen needs spiritual care as much medical and economic aid.
In this pandemic and after, amid civil war and after, Yemen desperately needs the church. It needs Christians to imitate our God who “will incline [his] ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more” (Ps. 10:17–18, NRSV). It needs us to embody God’s self-sacrificial care for the helpless. Yemen needs peace, and it needs our prayers.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today, a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette).