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Disastrous Effects of COVID-19 in Middle Eastern Conflict Zones

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Executive Summary

The international community must assist diplomatically and financially in alleviating the humanitarian crises of two states ravaged by civil wars, Syria and Yemen, in order to prevent societal and state-wide destruction caused by COVID-19. Moving forward without impactful action and collaboration ignores the two largest humanitarian crises occurring in the world today and abandons our most vulnerable populations. The following article constructs the argument for immediate international action and discusses the steps required to prevent the susceptible and conflict-ridden regions of Yemen and Syria from the catastrophic effects of COVID-19.

Syria: A Decade of Civil War Meets COVID-19

The Syrian civil war slowly began in 2011 due to the pro-democracy Arab Springs protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government spread rapidly throughout the state, and the government retaliated by killing protesters.[1] Different state and non-state actors, such as ISIS, the Kurds, and Russia, began entering the conflict shortly after.

The Syrian civil war resulted in excessive death tolls and a mass exodus to surrounding countries. Those living within Syria faced a monumental shift in their lives as homes and hospitals were destroyed. This conflict resulted in a humanitarian crisis with a mass displacement of people with two main groups of people needing assistance: internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.[2] Currently, there are 6.2 million IDPs within Syria’s borders and nearly six million Syrian refugees in surrounding countries.[3]

The humanitarian crisis in Syria poses an enormous threat that is compounded by the spread of COVID-19. The refugees and displaced persons are at a higher risk for COVID-19 owing to unstable housing and limited access to water, sanitation systems, and health facilities.[4] Since Syria has shut down as a precautionary measure, an extensive number of Syrians have lost their sources of income and do not have sufficient funds to pay for food and medication.[5] Testing and monitoring cases is extremely limited due to the destruction of healthcare facilities and a restricted number of testing kits, so it has become incredibly difficult to track cases.

The Deterioration of Yemen

Yemen has been experiencing a civil war for the past five years. The Houthis, a Shia Muslim minority rebel group in Yemen which are backed by Shiite Iran, rose to power and took control of majority of the country.[6] Saudi Arabia, which is predominately Sunni Muslim, opposes the Houthis as a religious sect and aims to restore power within Sunni Muslim groups in Yemen.[7] Other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and the United States, have launched attacks to oppose the Houthis and assist the original leaders of Yemen to return to power in order to reinstate regional power.[8]

The civil war in Yemen continues to leave disastrous effects on the people within its borders. Similar to Syria, only half of their medical facilities are functioning and 18 million people have limited to no access to clean water and sanitation.[9] Further, they have been experiencing a cholera outbreak with over 2 million cases.[10] As for the death tolls, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded over 100,000 deaths.[11] However, the most pressing issue in Yemen is food insecurity. The United Nations has reported that 20 million people need assistance in securing food and two million children are critically malnourished.[12] In recent months following the COVID-19 outbreaks, the United Nations also announced that their services in Yemen are severely underfunded, and 30 out of the 41 programs will be ended in the following weeks if funding is not received.[13]

The civil war in Yemen has destroyed the livelihood of the Yemeni people, and the COVID-19 presents an enormous threat to the autonomy and existence of the Yemeni people. The lack of funding from the United Nations, depletion of food resources, and inaccessible healthcare facilities are catalysts for the fatal impacts of COVID-19. As of June 24, there are 900 confirmed cases with 259 deaths which equates a 27% mortality rate.[14] The United Nations is predicting that the death toll from COVID-19 will be greater than the deaths from war and hunger in the past five years.[15]

Policy Recommendations

The entire international community holds the responsibility to uphold human rights and protect groups of people from preventable injustice and harm that have the severity to eliminate portions of the world’s most vulnerable populations. With this in mind, the international community must:

1. Form Diplomatic Relations for a Ceasefire

In order to effectively protect the lives of Syrian and Yemeni citizens, it is imperative that the international community and the United Nations organize peace talks to temporarily suspend military attacks and blockages. For Syria, these talks would include countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, Russia, the Kurds, and rebel groups. The diplomatic talks for Yemen’s civil war would largely focus around Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States, and the Houthi rebels. Once aggressions have been reduced or suspended, humanitarian aid and healthcare services can be funded and distributed.

2. Collect Monetary Aid, Food Resources, and Medical Supplies

The international community must pledge monetary aid to properly supply and fund services by the United Nations and essential NGOs within Syria and Yemen. Countries that are considered high-income should be the main suppliers of this aid. Both Syria and Yemen possess flawed health systems due to the civil wars and testing and treatment for COVID-19 is directly impacted. A primary focus of aid needs to be allocated for repairing the broken healthcare system and obtaining accessible testing centers.

Within Yemen specifically, extensive aid is required in managing the depleted food supply. A bulk of the food supply can be alleviated by proper funding for the United Nations programs; however, surrounding countries such as Israel, Qatar, Egypt, and Ethiopia need to provide immediate food and clean water assistance until the funding can be transmuted into accessible meals. These countries and the United Nations need to collaborate with UNICEF in order to meet the nutritional needs of two million malnourished Yemeni children.

Food shortages are increasingly common in Syria as well. International support should be catered around supplying food to Syrians, not only those within their borders but to Syrian refugees living in surrounding countries as well. The international community must partner with the UNHCR to provide funds for food and medical supply for these displaced refugees.

3. Create Checks on Western Countries

Regional powers in the Middle East need to provide economic incentives for each of the high-income, western countries, such as the United States, Canada, and European countries, in order to ensure monetary aid is being donated. Tariffs on specific goods are a primary economic incentive that is effective in cooperation between countries. For example, the United States gains economically through oil prices in the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries can use the western reliance on oil to their advantage through tariffs or negotiations in order to properly fund humanitarian programs. Without economic incentives, it is difficult to obtain international cooperation when each state is individually handling their own COVID-19 crises.


[1] Beauchamp, Z. “The Syrian War: 14 Moments That Explain the World's Worst Conflict.” Vox. October 2, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mahecic, Andrej. “Syrian Refugees Profoundly Hit by COVID-19 Economic Downturn.” UNHCR. June 16, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Yemen Crisis: Why is there a war?”. BBC. June 19, 2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Al-Shamani, Abubakr. “Yemen Coronavirus Cases Expected to Surge as UN Aid Dries Up.” Al Jazeera. June 24, 2020.

[15] Ibid.



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