Unveiling the Houthi cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic

Despite the aggressive spread of COVID-19, Iran has been making aggressive moves throughout the region. Its cover-up of the pandemic cost lives to its own high ranking officials, and to countless civilians. To this date, the exact number of victims in Iran is unknown, but many believe that it is understated at least ten times, and possibly much higher. In Yemen, the cover-up of the pandemic long since Iran has acknowledged at least the fact of the illness. Part of the reason was that the Houthi-controlled territories followed Iran’s lead and were helping cover up for Iran itself. At the same time, however, there were other reasons for this approach: the unwillingness to acknowledge the continued close links between Yemen and Iran despite the supposed travel bans and closed borders, the unwillingness to acknowledge lack of testing and medical facilities, and overall avoidance of accountability for human losses.

Iran itself treated the pandemic with the recklessness that has led to the spread of infection and into the region, in part to its military campaigns, proselytization efforts, and business and religious exchanges with China even at the height of the crisis. For Yemen, the unwillingness to acknowledge the presence of the disease harkened to some of the Iran’s publicly stated reasoning for ignoring the cover ups, including blaming the illness on Western conspiracies, looking to avoid responsibility for loses, and unwillingness to engage in formal ceasefires.  Although appalling videos from the ground showed Houthis looking for corona patients with the intention of massacring anyone acknowledging the illness, at the same time the natural question arises: what happened to all the humanitarian funding dedicated by the international community towards meeting basic needs? The truth is, Houthi control of hospitals has been disastrous for the state of medicine, and admitting COVID patients would have revealed much larger overarching problems. The reality is that in Yemen, the pandemic is at least as much a political and military issue as it is a public health matter.

The panel discussion of the National Coalition of Independent Women, titled “Yemen in Covid 19 Crisis : a Sharp Deterioration of the Health Situation and Catastrophic Spread” revealed that as bad as the situation appears to be in Iran, the impact of the pandemic in Yemen is potentially far worse. 80% of Yemen’s population is dependent on foreign humanitarian aid. By 2015, shortly after the broke out, experts warned that Yemen’s medical care system is nearing collapse.  By late fall of 2019, it had effectively collapsed already. The medical system became a political tool in the hands of the Houthis, who had turned at least one hospital into a launching pad for snipers targeting the Arab Coalition forces. Hospitals filled with Houthi fighters were used as human shields.

Houthis used lack of media interest and excessive focus on the actions of the Saudis to loot and marauder hospitals and clinics. According to Dr. Walid al-Bakili, the Middle East Officer at the Apollo Group in New Delhi, over 700 private clinics were shut down. The remaining public hospitals became subjects of violent raids on medical supplies, such as the decimation of a major hospital in Sana’a, in January, in the months leading up to the outbreak, depriving locals of healthcare, and the medical system of the basis to cope with existing and future crises.  By the time corona virus reached Yemen, hospitals were already overwhelmed with the influx of patients infected with other illnesses, including various respiratory infections, and cholera.  The population, suffering from hunger and low immunity, was predisposed to the rapid spread of the infection. Houthis, trained by Hizbullah and Iranian advisers, have been modeled to emulate Hezbulla, in turn modeled after Iran’s IRGC Al Quds forces.

By the time the pandemic broke out, if Houthis ever had any real interest or investment in the uprising, protecting the rights of the Yemenis, demanding an end to government corruption, or otherwise investing in the communities, it was all gone, and the movement effectively became the Iran regime’s puppet for exporting the Islamic Revolution, spreading the Khomeinist ideology, and recruiting local fighters. For instance, the Houthis made regulations concerning distribution of aid in territories under the control so complicated, rigid, and unpredictably that the international community leaders, including the United States, providing humanitarian aid halved it by April 2020, due to inability to distribute it efficiently. According to the US officials, most of this aid ends up being diverted by the Houthi leadership, and only the Houthis themselves benefit from it.

Medical testing, distribution of PPE and other medical supplies, and effective healthcare are non-existent in the epicenters of the pandemic, such as Aden, where according to Dr. al-Bakili, there are over 1000 cases, and dozens of politicians, judges, and other public figures have died in recent weeks of symptoms consistent with COVID-19, or other major cities, that are heavily populated but where the Houthi leadership and their families do not reside.  In essence, the crisis becomes nothing more than other hostage taking/human shield opportunity for the Houthis. For instance, they rejected the proposed two-week long ceasefire agreement with the Arab Coalition; rather than taking the opportunity to assess the needs of their vulnerable populations and to show leadership in an apparent, growing crisis, the Houthis were determined to advance their military agenda, and in fact, launched more attacks at the Saudi civilian population during that time. They turned the crisis into an opportunity to extort money from international organizations and to levy taxes in exchange for basic medical care. Emboldened by the lack of WHO’s investment into the pandemic in Yemen, Houthis became increasingly more aggressive with using the crisis to demonstrate their power and to prevent the population from rising up over the mismanagement on all levels.

For instance, in some areas they force tens of thousands of different families to quarantine together in close confinement without masks, gloves, other PPE, or disinfectants. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to these procedures which only increase the risk of the spread based on the most recent studies from the United States and elsewhere, except to impose compliance and to diminish the possibility of public protests. Other times, the Houthis will randomly quarantine various areas cutting off access to basic needs and without testing anybody. But part of the hostage taking scheme is offering “immunity papers” in exchange for $200 per person. This fundraising scheme ultimately benefits the Houthis themselves, but does nothing to stop the spread of the infections. While people are literally dropping dead on the streets, the Houthis have announced only very late in the game, in mid-May the presence of one or two token cases, while accusing the Coalition forces and  Yemen’s Health Ministry of covering up their own far more realistic numbers.

The exceedingly complicated processes established to distribute any outside humanitarian aid are part of the extortion process, by which the HOuthis divert the aid, or get part of the funding cut, with next to nothing ultimately reaching the intended recipients.  Ultimately, the Houthis have created information vacuum inside and outside the country, with the population having no basic instructions about keeping safe from the impact of the infection, and just like the peripheral areas in Iran, being disinformed about the spread of the illness by the superstitious Iran-educated Houthi clerics and propagandists looking to cull any potential critics, and outside with the help of the media which has given only superficial attention to the situation on the ground. The Arab Coalition has no choice but break through the noise with effective and accurate information to prevent the spread of vitriol and myths about the pandemic and the political situation surrounding it.

For Iran, Yemen is not even a potential territory to control, unlike Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria, but merely a convenient launch pad for attacks on regional adversaries & a battlefield to drag down Arab coalition. Therefore, unlike Hezbullah in Lebanon, or the Iraqi Shia militias, who rose to power on the basis of promising free medical care and access to other medical services or government protection, in Yemen there is no pretense of governance or “social jihad”. The Houthis, therefore, emulated Iran’s approach completely.  As Dr. Wissam Bassendowa, the head of the 8th March Union of the Yemeni Women, explains, there were three main reasons for the cover-up from the Houthis perspective. First, they wanted to hide, or at least to underplay, their continuous travel to Iran for religious, military, political, and diplomatic reasons. They cannot travel directly to Iran, and as a result, the Houthi leaders and fighters utilize a varietyof routes, such as the recently discovered passage through Lebanon.  Despite measures taken by other countries to protect their population, the presence of travelers from Iran, who do not have visas and pass undetected, increases the risk of the spread in those countries.

Second, the Houthis want to keep any possible spread of panic to the minimum, as it would be detrimental to their militia recruitment efforts. Third, the Houthis are focused on the spread of Khomeinism, which effectively means blaming everything that goes wrong on Americans, Saudis, and other external forces and claiming that the illness is brought in by the foreigners.  For the Houthis, stopping the fighting for a ceasefire, means giving up their very raison d’etre, which is war. IF they cease to fight and turn towards addressing health issues, they will fall apart. Houthis are like the Emperor with no clothes; they have no plan except to distract the population with vehement attacks on the Arab Coalition, if it is ever discovered that they have no capability of solving this or any other crisis – including the multiple other epidemics Yemen has already been dealing with – they will not be able to justify their activities. Of course, their unwillingness to reinvent themselves as a real political party with a platform for governance is hurting civilians as much as their own cause.

The primary victims of this disaster are the women; as Dr. Bassendowa underscores, they are the weakest link. facing domestic abuse on top of all the other problems. Where are the international feminists, supposedly concerned about women’s rights? The Western voices have been largely silenced, on this and other issues. The unscientific Khomeinist attitude of invincibility against infectious diseases is mixed with superstitious attitude and lack of basic facts about the corona virus. As a result, the civilians are at an even greater risk. As Dr. al-Bakili noted, Stigmatization of the corona virus infection leads to the admitted patients being killed by lethal injections in hospitals for “public good”, as well as Houthis hunting down & killing people with suspected symptoms, although the survival rate is 90%, with corona being far more contagious than it is deadly.

This lines up with the latest studies coming from New York, and other parts of the United States, as well. Meanwhile, due to widespread disinformation and misinformation, there is no possibility of getting even basics, such as setting up a field hospital in the epicenter of the illness in Aden.  According to Zafaran Ziad, the pandemic has been especially hard on the prisoners, and political detainees and POWs, who are suffering in overcrowded conditions with no access to medical care, on top of allegations of torture and other abuses and mistreatment. That situation sounds remarkably similar to Iran’s modus operandi, where Iran has not released a single Ahwazi Arab prisoner, including political prisoners, at the peak of the pandemic, leading to prison riots and growth of infection inside prisons. Part of that was deliberately done to break down the opposition to the regime inside the population, and part was a way of decimating the population in prisons and outside of them.

Because POWs and and critics of the Houthis are closely associated in the minds of the Western public and the rest of the international community, with the Arab Coalition, little thought has been given to their well being, especially during the crisis. To compound the catastrophic situation, many of the major humanitarian organizations, far from being helpful in facilitating access to medical care, are acting as accessories to Houthis’ diversion of the humanitarian aid, cover-up of the crisis, and illegal and inhumane activity on the ground. Perhaps it is time to name and shame Western-funded institutions making a profit on misery and Yemen and helping terrorist, Iran-backed abuse. Perhaps future panel discussions should be devoted to uncovering corruption, mismanagement, and unwelcome political role these supposedly humanitarian institutions are playing in exacerbating the crisis from which they stand to benefit by way of fundraising.

Ultimately, there is no magic bullet to resolve medical concerns in Yemen, but making Houthis unnecessary is key to mobilizing popular unrest over their mismanagement of the pandemic & renewing involvement by international institutions.  One recommendation is to break up the Houthi relationship with Iran itself, which is a complex topic, which invites further discussions and possibly consideration in future panels. Second, there is the issue of distributing accurate information. At least some of the damages of the pandemic can be mitigated without involvement of the Houthis, by compiling and disseminating accurate information about dealing with the illness, and providing simple instructions and recommendations through Internet, reliable NGO websites, and social media.  Another issue is providing an effective way of distributing PPEs and other humanitarian aid, which may require some out of the box thinking to bypass the Houthis.

That may include forming a non-military alliance with the Northern and other tribes that are more aligned with Houthis, but which are ultimately treated as no more than a colonial force and suffer from the same level of mismanagement and corruption as everyone else.  Whatever weakens Houthi authority and influence is ultimately beneficial in this scenario, and if this relationship over time grows into that of greater trust than the mere basis of self-interest in survival, so much the better. Of course, providing more accurate information about the situation in Yemen, the role of the Houthis, and the status of the most vulnerable population is likewise important in breaking through international indifference and concern over any further involvement. Having a sense that there is a concrete party to be involved with, talking to, and helping and that all of that can lead to a resolveable problem will surely increase the willingness of the international community to invest in Yemen in more ways than one.

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Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights and national security lawyer and analyst. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a wide variety of domestic and international publication. She has appeared on Fox Business, i24, and the John Batchelor Show, and has been interviewed by multiple Arabic language channels and publications, including Morocco’s 2M and Al Arabiya. Her writings have been translated to Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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