While Yemen has struggled to contain the novel coronavirus amid a years-long humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration has withdrawn critical aid that has led to drastic cuts in aid programs in the country and made the situation worse. The move comes after years of U.S. involvement in Yemen backing a Saudi-led coalition that has targeted civilians and infrastructure sites. The violent conflict has left millions displaced and at risk of famine in what the United Nations labels the world’s most dire humanitarian crisis.
Still, cable and broadcast news media have largely failed at covering the ramifications of United States’ foreign policy in Yemen. In March, when President Donald Trump moved to cut critical aid from the country, humanitarian groups warned of the potential for the coronavirus to have a detrimental impact in the region. When the coronavirus pandemic began to hit Yemen in April, it was reported that dozens of U.N. programs intended to assist the country were likely to be shut down due to the U.S. aid cuts. In June, the U.N. warned that financial aid was needed in the region to deter the shuttering of 31 out of 41 humanitarian aid programs.
But CNN and Fox News, along with CBS, NBC, and ABC’s nightly news programs, all failed to cover the aid cuts and their subsequent impact on the efforts to contain the coronavirus in Yemen. MSNBC’s coverage, though still minimal, included a thorough report that detailed efforts in Yemen to contain the coronavirus amid the United States’ humanitarian aid cuts.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen
Over five years of civil war in the region has led to an unconscionable crisis. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has reported that “extreme shortages of food, safe water, sanitation and healthcare, as well as deadly massive outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria have taken a heavy toll on civilian lives and deprived families of basic needs.”
Roughly 24 million people in the country -- 80% of the population -- require some form of humanitarian aid. At least 70% of the population lacks access to basic supplies such as food, water, or adequate health care, as the country has seen over 1 million cholera cases registered since 2018. Nearly 15 million people, or about half the population, are on the verge of starvation, and 400,000 children suffer from severe malnutrition.
Unsurprisingly, the crisis has been greatly compounded by the emergence of the coronavirus. The spread of the virus has caused so much death in the country that mass graves have been dug, and the U.N. has warned that the death toll from the virus could surpass the combined death toll from war, disease, and famine over the last five years.
The United States’ role
Since 2015, the United States has lent its support to an effort led by Saudi Arabia to interfere in the civil war, which has included “a relentless air campaign where Saudi warplanes and bombs hit thousands of targets, including civilian sites and infrastructure, with impunity.” In the spring of 2019, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution to end the U.S. involvement in Yemen, which Trump promptly vetoed.
In late March, as the world braced for the spread of the coronavirus, it was reported that the Trump administration was cutting health care aid to Yemen, despite objections from humanitarian groups that the coronavirus would likely devastate the country; Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, warned, “Many of the operations which keep people alive will close next month if funding doesn't come very soon. Already health, protection and water programmes are being scaled back.”
In late April, The Washington Post reported that 31 out of 41 of humanitarian aid programs in Yemen would likely shut down in a few weeks if the Trump administration and other donors didn’t fulfill their earlier aid pledges. Some accused the cuts of being “politically motivated,” and international groups urged the U.S. to restore funding, arguing that the U.S. has a “moral responsibility” to help Yemen with the coronavirus because of its decision to back the Saudi-led coalition:
“It is staggering to watch countries, like the United States, liberally supply arms for the war and then cut support for health services,” said Scott Paul, a humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America. “There is no excuse for any country, least of all one that has fueled the conflict like the U.S., to hold back funding for lifesaving activities at such a critical time.”
Against a backdrop of health facilities not functioning; shortages of testing devices, oxygen, ambulances and protective equipment; healthcare workers stricken with the virus; and sketchy electricity supplies in hospitals, the UN chief pointed out that even simple public health measures are challenging when 50 per cent of the population lacks clean water to wash their hands.
“Tackling COVID-19 on top of the existing humanitarian emergency requires urgent action”, he stressed. “We must preserve the major humanitarian aid operation that is already underway – the world’s largest – while developing new public health programmes to fight the virus and strengthen healthcare systems” – all of which requires financing.
While the Trump administration's aid cuts have led to three-quarters of aid programs shuttering or reducing operations in Yemen, U.S. national television news media have been negligent in coverage. Media Matters reviewed coverage from March 27 (when it was first reported that Trump was cutting the aid) until August 5 for mentions of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Trump’s aid cuts and the resulting cuts to humanitarian programs, and the impact this has had on Yemen’s ability to deal with the coronavirus.
CNN and Fox News failed to cover the aid cuts or their impact on the country’s ability to address the coronavirus, as did NBC’s, CBS’, and ABC’s nightly news programs. Yemen was typically discussed only in passing as part of a larger context, such as during discussions of Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
MSNBC mentioned Yemen a handful of times over this time period, including one full segment and a few brief mentions. Though MSNBC’s coverage was still minimal, one segment on July 3 featured a detailed report by NBC senior international correspondent Keir Simmons on the country’s struggles to contain the virus on top of an existing crisis, as well as the impact Trump’s aid cuts have had. Simmons’ report highlighted the specific plight of a 10-month-old child and emphasized the media’s “responsibility” to cover the crisis in Yemen because of recent actions taken by the Trump administration.
During a time of global crisis, it is imperative that the media inform their audience about the impact of the coronavirus in countries beyond the U.S., especially those struggling to deal with the pandemic because of the United States’ foreign policy decisions.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq database for cable and broadcast network coverage appearing in original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, and the nightly news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News) between 5 a.m. and midnight EDT from March 27 through August 5 for mentions of “Yemen”. We included any mentions of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Trump's cut to humanitarian aid to Yemen, and the impact of U.S. aid cuts on the spread of the coronavirus in the country.