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COVID-19 exacerbates already deteriorating food security situation in world’s largest humanitarian crisis

  • Alert
  • Yemen
  • August 7, 2020
COVID-19 exacerbates already deteriorating food security situation in world’s largest humanitarian crisis

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The impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbating an already worsening food security situation in Yemen, driven by the combination of conflict and  deteriorating macroeconomic conditions, alongside reductions to humanitarian assistance in northern Houthi-controlled areas. Prior to the country’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on April 10, authorities in both northern and southern areas of Yemen began implementing precautionary measures. These included border closures, increased screening and quarantine measures at ports, and some internal movement restrictions. While enforcement of local movement restrictions has been limited, the impacts of COVID-19 on economic activity at both the global and local levels have reduced household income through decreased remittance inflows and some reduced demand for labor. Across Yemen, an estimated 17 to 19 million people are expected to be in need of humanitarian food assistance in 2020.

As of July 29, 1,695 total cases of COVID-19 and 484 associated deaths had been confirmed in Yemen (Figure 1), with the highest numbers of cases reported in the southern governorates of Hadhramaut (over 663 cases), Ta’izz (over 288 cases), and Aden (over 270 cases). However, capacity for testing and treatment is severely limited, with available data and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the true extent of the outbreak is worse than the official figures indicate. Though data on total number of tests administered are not publicly available, Yemen reportedly has the highest case fatality rate (CFR) in the world — at 28.6 percent as of July 29 — suggesting that only the most severe cases are being tested. In northern areas, numerous reports have also suggested that the extent of COVID-19’s spread has not been fully disclosed.  

The COVID-19 outbreak is an additional shock in Yemen, adding to the impacts of persistent conflict and displacement and a deteriorating macroeconomic situation. These non-COVID-19 drivers are of greatest concern for the food security situation in Yemen, though within this context of already severe acute food insecurity, the indirect impacts of COVID-19 — and, to a lesser extent, the direct impacts — are expected to contribute to a worsening food security situation.

More specifically, the food security of some households is likely to be negatively affected by the direct impacts of COVID-19 infection, including through increased health costs and fewer household members able to work. However, the key impacts of COVID-19 on acute food insecurity will likely be more indirect, primarily through further reductions in income-earning. Currently, economic slowdowns in Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to COVID-19 control measures and declining oil prices have resulted in declining levels of remittances. Though data needed to confirm the extent of changes in levels of remittances are not available, key informants have indicated reductions of up to 50 percent or more relative to pre-COVID-19 levels in some areas. Given expectations for gradual economic recovery in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, remittance levels are expected to increase in late 2020, but remain below average. Meanwhile, the FAO and key informants report that supply and demand for agricultural labor is currently below average in some areas, likely attributable to a combination of fear of infection and some localized movement restrictions. Key informants also report that, at least partly due to economic impacts from COVID-19, demand for labor in urban areas has declined. Overall, FEWS NET expects that COVID-19 impacts on labor supply have been minimal, given poor households’ need to access daily income and the localized nature and limited enforcement of control measures. However, as millions of Yemenis already face regular and persistent disruption to their typical livelihood activities, additional impacts from COVID-19 serve to further limit poor households’ access to income.

Despite some local supply chain disruptions, available evidence indicates that COVID-19 movement restrictions have not meaningfully affected food availability or prices to date. Food price increases since the start of 2020 are mainly attributable to the effects of the depreciation of the currency. As of the first week of June, the cost of the minimum food basket at the national level was 11 percent higher relative to December 2019, according to FAO data. Throughout the remainder of 2020, the YER is expected to continue depreciating due to worsening currency shortages given limited export earnings, with the highest parallel exchange rates expected in southern areas. This will make imports more expensive, with food prices expected to continue increasing and food import levels expected to remain low. Given worsening currency shortages, further reductions in government payments of civil servant salaries are also expected.

The impacts of conflict, deteriorating macroeconomic conditions, and reductions to humanitarian assistance in northern Houthi-controlled areas remain of greatest concern for food security in Yemen, where millions of people already face food consumption gaps that risk human health. In this context, the impacts of COVID-19 are expected to continue exacerbating the food security situation. Overall, access to income is expected to remain low through the remainder of 2020, driven by reductions in civil servant salary payments, reduced remittances, and declining demand for wage labor. At the same time, household food access will likely be increasingly constrained by rising food prices. In northern areas, where beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance are expected to continue receiving reduced levels of assistance, access to food is expected to be most severely constrained. Most western areas of Yemen are expected to be in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or Crisis! (IPC Phase 3!), though Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes are expected in Sa’dah, Hajjah, Amran, Al Mahwit, and Al Bayda. Overall, an estimated 17 to 19 million people are expected to be in need of humanitarian food assistance in 2020. While it is not the most likely scenario, Famine (IPC Phase 5) would be possible in the event that food supply is cut off for a prolonged period of time.


Figure 1

Figure 1

Source: Figure 1

FEWS NET will publish an Alert to highlight a current or anticipated shock expected to drive a sharp deterioration in food security, such that a humanitarian food assistance response is imminently needed.

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