Houthis’ Approach to Coronavirus Designed to Benefit Movement’s Elite

Donors’ efforts are needed to ensure access to coronavirus assistance is open to all citizens without discrimination, lest they risk exacerbating social bias and inequality in an already frail country.

The global coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a more turbulent time for Yemen, which is in its sixth year of a conflict that has devastated the already fragile health of its population. While the death toll in Yemen from the pandemic has been rising, statistics released by the de facto Houthi authorities in the capital, Sanaa, do not reflect the number of infected. President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his rivals at the secessionist-leaning Southern Transitional Council have openly shared information about coronavirus cases, publishing the numbers of the infected, but the Houthi rebels have held such information under strict centralized management, keeping the public in the dark about the impact and spread of the virus. The Houthis’ strict information control around the illness appears to be a tactical move that aims to safeguard the interests of its leadership and elites.

Houthis control a significant number of urban areas in Yemen’s northern highlands that possess high population density. The old quarter of Sanaa is as crowded and busy as downtown Cairo, with an average family size of eight living in one or two rooms. This makes the risk of virus transfer high and the possibilities of self-quarantine challenging. It also makes the suppression of information almost impossible. Residents of Sanaa taking note of the increasing number of funerals and burials in their neighborhoods have expressed dismay on social media platforms about the growing death toll. Others have announced obituaries and funeral processions online, which give Yemenis a sense of the general direction their cities have been heading. Medical health professionals, chief among them Dr. Ahmed al-Moayed, founder of al-Moayed hospital in Sanaa, and Dr. Mohamed al-Qendad, a prominent doctor at al-Ahly hospital in Sanaa, are dying unexpectedly. Meanwhile, Houthi official sources only acknowledged four coronavirus cases, with one resulting in death.

Because public accountability and access to information are not possible under the current circumstances, citizens fear class or sectarian inequality and social discrimination at the hospitals, a majority of which are run by Houthi elites. Even dedicated Houthi followers could be discriminated against if they do not have elite status, which is often designated to specific households in the country that claim genealogical lineage from the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, commonly referred to as Sayed, Ashraf, or Hashemite. This social discrimination based on genealogical lineage to the prophet has been a practice since the Houthis’ takeover of large swaths of Yemen in 2014 and has become institutionalized in many sectors, including the extractive industry sector in which Houthis allocated 20% of revenue to be specifically designated to Hashemite.

Under these circumstances, triage becomes risky, particularly for doctors seeking to uphold ethical standards. They are not asked directly to discriminate among patients per se but are asked to prioritize resources to certain individuals. Doctors in Sanaa are under strict directives not to disclose coronavirus cases to patients. In an interview on the Houthi-sponsored al-Maseera channel with a coronavirus patient in al-Kuwait hospital, the patient expressed gratitude to medical workers for not telling him he was infected. “They told me I have asthma and diabetes,” he said, adding, “had they told me that I had corona the first day [I arrived here], I would have probably died.”

A community kept in the dark breeds a perfect environment for disinformation and rumors, such as the one reported by the Associated Press of a “mercy injection” that Houthis are allegedly administering to euthanize coronavirus patients.

Faced with public and international pressure to disclose information, Houthi officials devised a narrative admitting they suppressed the numbers to manage public anxiety and reduce panic. The Houthi minister of public health and population, Dr. Yahiya al-Mutwakel, stated that Yemeni physicians and pharmacists are working around the clock to find a cure for the virus, and then provided an estimate of an 80% recovery rate, without providing actual numbers. He claimed his ministry’s alleged success was the result of having curbed “media terrorism,” and he accused the media of “bearing the responsibility of a large part of the number of deaths around the world.” Moreover, Mutwakel criticized Western countries for exaggerating the threat and encouraging citizens to fear the virus, which could lead to people displaying symptoms of hypochondria. He also criticized lockdown measures because of their devastating impact on vulnerable people and the economy.

The lack of transparency has increased public anxiety. Videos of people forcibly taken away from their homes by gunmen in ambulances generated the exact panic that Houthis claim they want to avoid. Another video of body bags buried at night by men donning medical hazmat suits demonstrated the Houthis’ questionable methods of managing the pandemic. The opaque environment in which the Houthis are operating has also been a contributing factor to United Nations staff evacuating Sanaa.

Mutwakel’s assurances are a far cry from his alarmist position in early April when he addressed the Parliament, warning that Yemen could not handle the pandemic. “If COVID-19 arrives, 90% of the Yemeni population could be affected when we have only 1,500 hospital beds,” he said. He told the Parliament that Yemen cannot handle the medical and financial burden of the virus and that within two months, a million people could be infected.

The change in the Houthis’ position from Mutawakel’s dire predictions to its current focus on reassuring the population that their health is not at risk could reflect a self-interested calculation. The Houthis understand that because there is not sufficient capacity to serve everyone, prioritizing health care becomes of paramount importance, especially for the elites and their families. Houthis’ control over virus information allows them to prioritize treatment and quarantine based on their belief system and interests. Second, Houthi leaders realize that international aid organizations might interfere in this process and insist that they uphold their obligations under international law as an occupying authority, which might explain the reason behind their increasingly hostile attitudes toward the U.N.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely the Houthis’ approach to addressing pandemic issues will change. They have no incentive to accept the proposed Saudi cease-fire, which came as a response to a U.N. call for de-escalation and a shift to fighting the coronavirus. As seen in previous negotiations, Houthis have often held up U.N.-sponsored peace talks to extract concessions for their leadership, including medical treatment.

Bearing this in mind, the international community will need to resist Houthi efforts to manipulate aid delivery. The Yemen aid pledging conference on June 2 raised $1.35 billion, almost half of the amount requested to help Yemen with its humanitarian crisis. These funds will need to be disbursed swiftly. Donors’ best efforts will be necessary to ensure that access to this assistance is open to all citizens without discrimination, lest they risk exacerbating social bias and inequality in an already frail country.