ACAPS Thematic report: COVID-19 in Yemen: State Narratives, Social Perceptions, and Health Behaviours – 4 May 2020

On 10 April 2020, 14 weeks after the first case was announced in China, Yemen was one of the last countries worldwide to announce a single confirmed case of COVID-19 infection in its population. Nevertheless, political authorities and the public, both in areas under the control of the Houthi movement and the internationally recognised government (GoY), responded early and in differing ways to the declaration of the pandemic. The current multiplicity of actors in charge of public health across the country as well as cultural and political differences in the way the pandemic is perceived by the population pose a challenge for humanitarian agencies trying to operate on the ground and across the Houthi/GoY divide.

This report charts the institutional reaction to the pandemic from the moment the Houthi and GoY administrations acknowledged the problem in mid-February until the end of April 2020 and the measures implemented by the various authorities that are in de facto control of different parts of the country. It also analyses the political narratives that have been adopted by the different authorities and popular perceptions towards the pandemic. Both narratives and perceptions influence the public’s health behaviour and determine the degree to which Yemenis will adopt and adhere to a variety of different measures. Thus this report presents an analysis of the potential impact of social perceptions and political narratives on a COVID-19 outbreak in Yemen, as well as recommendations for its mitigation.

Yemen’s northern governorates are under the authority of the Houthi movement. In the south of Yemen the internationally recognised government of president Hadi competes for control with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), and with locally influential political actors such as individual governors and militia leaders. As a result, the COVID-19 crisis has become yet another politicised element of the conflict and a way for each side to point at the failures of the other or even accuse the other of helping spread the virus. The report underlines this dialectic element in the parties’ opposing approaches and highlights the need for nuanced, customised interventions in different parts of Yemen by humanitarian agencies.

Key Findings

1. People in Houthi-controlled territories tend to downplay the risk associated with COVID-19 considering war their main existential threat. People in government and STC-controlled territories are more worried with the bad state of the healthcare system and lack of political initiative to deal with the pandemic.

2, Competition for political legitimacy among state and non-state authorities influences their response to COVID-19 and citizens’ health behaviour.

3. Houthi authorities are adopting a similar rhetoric and language as their regional partners, Iran and Hezbollah. The Government of Yemen (GoY) and Southern Transitional Council (STC) authorities take a more ‘Western’ or ‘scientific’ approach.

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