Learning from Mistakes in Pandemic Response

As of March 27, 2020, at 2:00 PM EST, there are over 5650,000 infection cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus discovered in December 2019, in the world. The number of global fatalities due to the virus has surpassed 26,000.

“Passengers spend their St. Patrick’s Day’s waiting for their luggage at John F. Kennedy International Airport after returning from overseas before a number of airports shut down due to COVID-19 fears [WISE].

The majority of all COVID-19 cases, including those closed, have been concentrated in China, where the virus was first detected, with Italy and Iran trailing close behind. But, as symptoms often present similarly to the common flu, international travel and global trade have allowed the virus to leap between countries undetected—at least at the beginning of the outbreak.

The European Union (EU) is an example of the way that the free movement of goods and people today has enabled contagion; Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom called Europe the new “epicenter of the pandemic” last week.

During global crises like COVID-19, there is a consensus that people in all countries must unite against a disease that doesn’t stop at borders. To combat COVID-19,  many states have cancelled or postponed large public events, shifted schools to online learning, and asked anyone feeling under-the-weather to self-quarantine if possible, depending on the severity of the outbreak.

This isn’t the first time that the world has had to respond to a pandemic; countries have grappled with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and others just in the past half-century. But, pandemics are not a modern phenomenon; even as far back as 430 BC, the Plague of Athens set fire to Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia as it made its way to the Roman city-state on the back of the Peloponnesian War. It can be concluded, however, that as humanity grows more interconnected, modes of disease transmission also become more plentiful.

The question is: is there a trade-off between globalization and public health? Or, can we learn from past pandemics—and the world’s response to them—to craft a more conscious, prepared society?

Transmitting Disease

Historically, diseases have grown into pandemics through modes of human interaction. For example, the Black Death was carried from Crimea to North Africa, Italy, Spain, and France by Genoese trading ships in 1347 and 1348. Another outbreak of the bubonic plague, the Great Plague of London in 1665, spread through England via trading ports along the Thames River, and the 1855 Plague was spread from Yunnan province in China to Hong Kong and Guangzhou as the cities grew increasingly connected by mining. Sixty years later, in 1918, the Spanish Influenza was spread across North America by laborers using the Canadian rail system to reach Europe.

These are all examples of disease spread through benign means. Yet, there are also examples of pandemics being weaponized. Before it was spread to Europe, the Black Death was brought to Crimea by the army of Kipchak Khan Janibeg, which catapulted infected corpses into the town that is now Feodosiya on the Black Sea coast in an effort to cripple its population. As armies move, they can also pass infection unintentionally; like the armies that transmitted the Plague of Athens, the Huns were key in carrying the Antonine Plague in 165 AD.

Pandemics pose a clear danger to public health; but, they also hold an element of fear that make them a threat to the mental and economic wellbeing of society. This fear is, of course, due in part to potential fatality—but, what we especially fear is the unknown.

This is especially true with COVID-19. As COVID-19 is a novel, or new, coronavirus—viruses named just for the structure of their cells—information about its spread and possible prevention is still developing. With an unclear picture of the future, public health officials around the world are struggling to outline long-term needs and craft policy that will meet them without usurping resources too hastily.

Social Divides: Manifesting Fear

COVID-19 and the pandemics before it have taught us that fear often manifests in scapegoating. The tenth edition of the Journal of Public Health in Africa characterized leprosy, for example—which mushroomed from its minor existence into a European epidemic in the Middle Ages—as a “social killer” for the stigma it carried as opposed to “serial killers” like malaria.

Now, individuals and businesses of Asian origin all over the world are facing stigma associated with COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China. On March 9, two months into the hysteria, Twitter user @winyeemichelle asked followers to “pls consider making your weekly takeout a Chinese takeaway. My family’s businesses have all been impacted hugely by coronavirus panic.”

Similar Sinophobia, or hate of things Chinese, was witnessed during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, when a coronavirus originating in Guangdong, China, eventually infected 8,098 people worldwide as reported by WHO.

During the SARS pandemic, “The fact that China’s government initially suppressed information about the virus added to the climate of blame,” Rebecca Onion writes for Slate.

But, racist reactions have not been confined to viruses originating from China. “Our views about race have always colored our views about who is safe or who is contaminated,” Natalia Molina said in an interview with Sean Illing for Vox. “When we already have negative representations of certain groups…then it’s much more likely that we’ll see them as disease carriers or as health burdens.” Think of the stigma associated with Middle Easterners when MERS became an issue in 2012, with Africans during the Ebola outbreak of 2013-2016, and with Hispanics during the Zika craze of 2015-2016.

This ingrained racism manifests even in the way that a virus is named (i.e., “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome”). COVID-19 is being called the “Wuhan Virus.” By marrying a virus with its origin, a label is slapped—intentionally or not—across people from that place identifying them as disease.

Of course, some see “The Wuhan Virus” as a fitting—at the very least, factual—name for a disease that did, in fact, originate in Wuhan. Deputy Editor of USAToday David Mastio wrote for the publication that “Finding excuses to hurl the racism charge over such minor issues as how to refer to a new disease cheapens the currency of a serious allegation.”

Likewise, U.S. president Donald Trump regularly refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” When asked on Thursday to comment on the use of the phrase “Kung Flu” by an unnamed member of his administration—and whether it puts Asian-American community at risk—he said, “I think [the Asian-American community] probably would agree with it 100 percent.  It comes from China. There’s nothing not to agree on.”

The Economic Impact of Social Distancing 

To limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible, many restaurants have switched to takeout or delivery-only. Schools and universities, from Northeastern University in Boston to Egypt’s American University in Cairo, have transferred their classes online and evacuated their dormitories. Many restaurants and cafes operate under curfews, and some other workplaces are requesting that employees work from home (though, to be clear, working from home has been a white-collar privilege that largely excludes service workers).

These measures are part of the broad “social distancing” measures that are being followed worldwide. In hard-hit countries like Italy, social distancing is federally enforced; NPR’s March 10 episode of its “Up First” podcast describes conditions inside Italy’s “red zone”, or national lockdown. In what contributor Sylvia Poggioli describes as “the most draconian measure ever taken in a Western country, at least in peacetime”, police cars patrol empty streets, entreating residents over a loudspeaker to stay inside. France and Spain have since taken similar measures.

In countries like Egypt, all airports have closed, and air carriers elsewhere have chosen to limit their flights. The Friday prayer, a staple of religiosity in Muslim countries, has been halted by edict from Saudi Arabian Islamic scholars.

Similarly, shipping and manufacturing have been limited; Honda, Ford, General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler, and Toyota have announced their intent to suspend all production in North America. Public gatherings like parades and sporting events have been cancelled, decreasing money flows domestically and internationally. Stocks have fallen and tourism has been depressed.

The United Nations (UN) Center for Trade and Development has estimated that these trigger points could cost the global economy between $1-2 trillion in 2020. But, economic impact is not distributed evenly; mirroring existing socio-economic disparities, low-income countries and individuals are usually hit the hardest.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies warns that, “At the sectoral level, tourism and travel-related industries will be among the hardest hit.” This has implications for tourism-dependent economies, chief of which are developing Caribbean states like the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. Additionally, materials prepared by Chicago-based law firm Baker Mckenzie point out the reliance of African countries on Chinese demand for raw materials, which has been severely reduced.

That’s not to say that wealthy countries don’t feel the economic effects of COVID-19; in the United States, trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and TSX on March 10 was all halted as “circuit breakers” cut in to mitigate a selling frenzy. On that day, the Dow Jones fell 10 points, its worst performance since the 1987 market crash.

Within countries, inequity also persists. Consumers have devastated the aisles of supermarkets in “panic buys”: large bulk purchases of enough foodstuffs to last them a potential 14-day quarantine. Don Goldmann, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, describes the madness in Boston: “I can tell you I went shopping today, to Trader Joe’s, and the place was mobbed. All I wanted was frozen peas, and there was no frozen pea to be had in any store I went to.”

These aisle clearouts disadvantage those who don’t have the financial reservoirs to buy hundreds of dollars worth of groceries at a time; when people who shop day-to-day are met with vacant shelves, that may either eliminate the possibility of dinner or force consumers towards fast-food restaurants, where the possibility of contracting disease is higher. Similarly, without the guarantee of paid sick leave, low-income individuals are more likely to go to work when experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 at risk of infecting others.

Moreover, refugee and homeless populations are left exposed to the elements with little ability to self-quarantine. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement services. Although the UNHCR has implored individual states to enable resettlement to the extent they are able, widespread border closures make intake unlikely.

Similar social distancing measures were seen in the United States during the 1918 Influenza epidemic, but not after Ebola, SARS, or MERS. Gina Kolata reports for the New York Times that public gathering places in Philadelphia as well as schools and theaters in Albuquerque were all closed in 1918.

Political Crossroads

This outbreak of COVID-19 comes in the midst of primary voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, attempts to form a coalition government in Israel, and attempts by Russian president Vladamir Putin to extend his time in office.

Iran held its parliamentary elections on February 21—and saw only 43 percent voter turnout, the lowest since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. “Some people might have not gone to the polls because they were worried that they were going to catch the coronavirus,” scholar Holly Dagres explained in a podcast for the Cairo Review.

In countries undergoing election cycles, COVID-19 has many worrying about the integrity of results when many people are afraid to—and in some cases, have been advised not to—leave their homes.

Even in the United States, the Connecticut, Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana, and Georgia state primaries have been postponed. Some states have tried to maintain voting normalcy while taking precautions; for its primary on March 2, Massachusetts directed voting staff to disinfect polling booths with more frequency. Washington switched from in-person to mail-in and drop-box voting.

On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to insulate pandemics from politicization. When swine flu struck the United States in 1976, Gerald Ford’s campaign for president added mass immunization to its platform. As David S. Jones writes in the New England Journal of Medicine, “When people fell ill or died after receiving the vaccine, and when the feared pandemic never materialized, Ford’s plan backfired and may have contributed to his defeat that November.” Now, U.S. voters are factoring ability to respond to pandemics into their choice between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two leading Democratic candidates for president.

The ways that countries are able to respond to COVID-19 are also part and parcel of the existing political context. When COVID-19 hit Iran, for example, it hit a country already crippled by corruption, mismanagement, and the U.S. “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions—conditions ill-equipped for pandemic response.

“Every time U.S. president Donald Trump threatened to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, European companies were hesitant to invest in the country”, Dagres asserted. As the world combats COVID-19, U.S. sanctions on Iran remain ironclad. “U.S. sanctions have hampered Iran’s ability to purchase or access medical equipment or pharmaceuticals in the international market”, Sanam Vakil said to Middle East Eye.

Have we learned anything?

Yes and no.

Take the United States, for example. In 2014, Beth Cameron was appointed to lead the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was established in a “I wish we had had this” moment after the Ebola scare the same year. In 2017, that center was dissolved by the Trump administration.

Because of this, “When this new coronavirus emerged, there was no clear White House-led structure to oversee our response, and we lost valuable time”, Cameron wrote for The Washington Post. “The job of a White House pandemics office would have been to get ahead: to accelerate the response, empower experts, anticipate failures, and act quickly and transparently to solve problems.”

Yet, dissolving post-pandemic initiatives after a cooling period is hardly an administration-specific response. “Theoretically, we should be really well prepared,” Goldmann told the Cairo Review. “But,” he continued, “in my experience, our memory and our state of readiness tends to…I don’t want to use the word deteriorate, but the urgency wanes over time. And every time we have a new threat—like H1N1, which turned out to be less of a threat than we initially thought it might be—we seem to have to relearn the same lessons over and over again.”

With each pandemic, preparedness (or lack thereof), varies in states all over the world. “Unlike Central Africa, Ebola was not a usual occurrence in West Africa; the necessary elements of community trust and public health decision-making weren’t in place to detect and stop it,” Cameron writes. This, combined with the recognizability of Ebola symptoms and the launch of the Global Health Security Agenda, enabled the U.S. to take the global lead in response.

Goldmann contrasts the readiness of the U.S. federal government to respond to COVID-19 with that of the country’s healthcare delivery system, which doesn’t have to mold itself to changing presidential administrations. In Boston Children’s Hospital, where Goldmann works, staff had been running drills to practice response to potential hospital overload.

There are lessons to be learned by comparing Italy and China, handling their time at the front lines of the pandemic very differently.

On Sunday, a video compilation surfaced of quarantined Italians imploring the rest of the world—particularly Americans and Frenchmen reluctant to stay inside—not to underestimate the virus. “This issue is more serious than most of the world believes,” one man said; indeed, than Italians themselves believed at the beginning of the outbreak.

“What is happening is much worse than you thought it was,” another woman echoed.

For Italians, measures to contain communicable disease, like social distancing, felt foreign. In China and the areas surrounding it, however, measures like wearing masks were already relatively common. Some experts, like Keiji Fukuda, see China as equipped with muscle memory of its response to the SARS epidemic. “Virtually everybody here has been through the drill,” Fukuda said to Today’s WorldView. Indeed, today was the second day that China recorded no new locally-transmitted cases, though global travel still poses a problem for transmission.

However, though China has been effective in limiting viral presence within its borders since lockdown was declared in Wuhan on January 23, it had a potential to respond even earlier that was hampered by government suppression. Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang sounded the alarm in December, when he began treating patients in Wuhan for SARS-like symptoms; shortly after publicizing his worries, Wenliang and seven colleagues were forced to sign an admission of rumor-mongering by the Chinese security police. Because the Chinese government was reluctant to validate Wenliang’s information—and thereby provide him with personal protection while treating patients—Wenliang passed away after succumbing to the virus on February 7.

By contrast, South Korea—which has the same memory of the SARS epidemic—has seen a “highly coordinated government response that has emphasised transparency”, John Power writes for This Week in Asia. They reported 600 new cases on March 3, and just 110 on March 13.

So, maybe the ‘muscle memory’ of some countries and institutions is better than others when it comes to responding to pandemics. As Goldmann succinctly summarizes: “All we can do now is to remind ourselves of lessons from the past, ramp up prevention and control measures (especially physical distancing) as quickly as possible, and remember this experience when we begin planning for the future.”

An earlier version of this article previously appeared in The Cairo Review of Public Affairs and has been republished with permission.

How Yemen Rises

Previous experiences of post-war reconstruction (PWR) inform us that it will always fall short of the expectations of donors and recipients alike. There is not one experience of such reconstruction where things went according to plan.

Experts and writers have to go all the way back to post-WWII reconstruction in Europe and Japan to find successful examples, only to discover that their contexts were fundamentally different from any subsequent post-war scenarios.

Recently, the concept of fragile states has been introduced to the field, not only to encapsulate the differences between post-WWII reconstruction and other subsequent situations, but also to highlight the challenges arising from rebuilding in countries where even peacetime governments were too weak or incompetent to manage the needs of the state.

The most recent PWR regional examples in Iraq and Afghanistan did not live up to expectations, to put it mildly. When this happens there is always the pointing of fingers—blame directed at donors for not providing enough resources; at governments for not having absorption or deployment capacities, or for being corrupt; at international and local NGOs for manipulating the situation to acquire wealth at the expense of human tragedy; or at local communities and local political actors for not getting their act together in time to benefit from the short-lived focus of the international community.

Considering the realities of post-war reconstruction, instead of calling out failure, it may be more useful to focus on what was achieved given a catastrophic situation, limited capacities, and meager resources. After all, PWR is supposed to come to a place struck by the tragic destruction of livelihoods, market networks, health, sanitation, and education infrastructures, and turn all of those around. It must do so through processes implemented in an environment of insecurity, instability, fragile negotiated settlements, post-conflict competition between actors, rearrangement of power structures, existing war economies, new reconstruction economies, weak central governments, multiple donor priorities, and local perceptions of favoritism.

It is hardly surprising that this usually leads to a limited capacity for implementation, waste of resources due to corruption or lack of coordination, concentration of wealth among those with existing deployment capacity, and most seriously, the sowing of new seeds for future conflict or a breakdown of peace. Yemen, or any other country for that matter, such as Syria, is no different.

The Tragedy of Yemen

It is widely acknowledged that the conflict in Yemen has led to one of the greatest preventable disasters facing humanity. The extent of the tragedy is difficult to measure due to the scarcity of reliable data, but the estimates are staggering. Deaths due to direct violence reach up to seventy thousand and indirect deaths from disease, hunger, or simply lack of medical resources are in the hundreds of thousands, of which some eighty thousand are children.

Millions have been either internally displaced from their homes and sources of livelihood, or were lucky enough to find a way to flee the country. The educational system is as good as broken and nearly five years of schooling or university education have simply been wiped out from the futures of millions of children and youths.

Up to fifteen million Yemenis, including millions of malnourished children, are close to famine and most will suffer long-lasting consequences to their health and wellbeing. As a consequence of the breakdown of the country’s health system, Yemen has witnessed the worst cholera outbreak in recent human history. The economic system has also collapsed, leaving about 50 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. The political order has been reduced to a situation where there is no vision or leadership.

The conflict will eventually come to an end. But of course, no one expects that a negotiated settlement will bring immediate security or stability to the country. One may even expect a rise in insecurity due to the transfer of power from local militias to a central government and the transition from a war-based security arrangement to a state-based one. The current security order in Yemen—if one can call it that—is based on militia enforcement under the guise of wartime logic. Once that order is dismantled, there will potentially be a transition period with extreme levels of insecurity, especially in urban areas that lack cohesion and strong community-based security arrangements.

Moreover, a political settlement, even if it is perfectly designed, will not eliminate the deep hostilities between the warring factions and negative memories between communities. This is a given in any conflict. To make matters harder, the war in Yemen was largely due to a total breakdown of a power arrangement, which created a power vacuum that the Houthis tried and failed to exploit for their benefit.

After a negotiated settlement is achieved, the attempt to reconfigure a new power structure will resume, and a key tool of that will be control and allocation of resources, especially those for rebuilding. Subsequently, any government that is born out of a Yemeni political settlement will be no more than a collective of officials answering to rival factions—old and new—with competing interests.

Reconstruction will be driven by a systemic favoritism, and it will take a strong president—if Yemen is lucky enough to obtain one in the immediate or near future—at least three years to streamline the government and represent the interests of the country as a whole. The long war has given birth to a thriving war economy that is benefiting the militias, politicians, and some merchants. The war’s conclusion will not bring an abrupt end to this class of merchants of war. Those same actors exploiting the tragedy of Yemen to enrich themselves will change tactics and leverage their financial powers, contacts, and networks to create a new post-war economy.

There is already a great deal of experience in exploiting international aid, and that experience will be used to capitalize on vast amounts of donor money and the economic potential of a PWR economy. These merchants’ wealth will put them in a better position to implement large projects that require deep pockets and sustained cash flow, while thousands of professionals and impoverished business men and women will be relegated to spectators who lost during the war and will continue to lose. All of this would occur at the expense of genuine needs, whether of the economy at large or the immediate sustenance of millions of Yemenis barely surviving today.

Add to that the political and security consideration of donor allocations to rebuild. Estimates for Yemen’s reconstruction vary, but, according to recent figures from the country’s planning minister, could reach $28 billion in the short term and $60 billion in the long term. Regardless of the estimates, what matters is how much will actually be given to Yemen. Whatever that number is, it will within a year or two inevitably empower some groups over others, especially those with a large popular base and who depend on their base’s financial support. This alone creates a security challenge for donors keen to support Yemen’s communities in a way that does not translate into more power for factions, especially factions whose interest is a weak Yemeni government in the long run.

Some Dos and Don’ts

Yemen’s post-war reconstruction will not meet donor/recipient expectations and will face colossal challenges to avoid total failure. Based on the above and on the specific nature of Yemen’s politics, a number of steps can be taken to maximize the positive effects and minimize the inevitable negative outcomes.

Decentralize Reconstruction

Centralizing rebuilding efforts would essentially mean creating a single reconstruction authority that works independently of, or at least parallel to, the newly formed Yemeni government. This would most likely lead to a systemic preference for certain PWR models over others. For example, some consider the priority to be the revitalization of the economy through mega infrastructure projects such as roads, airports/ports, and city water and sewage systems. Others prioritize smaller scale issues that have an immediate relief and sustenance impact for affected communities.

Since it is given that there is no universally applicable PWR model that provides perfect results, the best rebuilders should opt for is one that facilitates the funding and implementation of multiple models. Decentralizing is better in that regard. Moreover, no one central body could ever be equipped to deal efficiently or effectively with different international, state, and community priorities. Centralizing reconstruction would lead to the dictatorship of that body over the process without any guarantee that it could deliver more than could a variety of government bodies.

One justification for centralization is that the Yemeni government has always had a limited capacity for both absorbing aid and implementing projects, and that the war has only made the situation worse. The assumption is that a newly created body would do better, but there is no evidence to support this, and efforts to do so in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us otherwise.

We also to note that government bodies are not equal; some are more efficient than others, and decentralizing allows for those who can fare better to function better. Finally, investing in existing government institutions will strengthen them, and in so doing strengthen the system of checks and balances.

Put Communities First

A second step is to put communities first, and the interests of international NGOs (INGOs) second. As much as we prefer to think otherwise, there exists a relief and reconstruction complex of some local, but mainly international, NGOs who do good, but also make massive amounts of money by acting as intermediaries for much of the funding coming into a country from donors. The final beneficiary in Yemen may only receive a fraction of the original allocated amount, the rest going to a chain of intermediaries for what is dubbed “management costs”.

This will certainly continue as it is almost institutionally impossible to manage the transfer of funds from donors to projects without INGOs with the right expertise. That said, local communities should play a role in determining which projects are to be implemented in their area. They should even be empowered to nominate the right INGO for the task.

One way Yemen’s Ministry of Planning could facilitate this is by setting up a portal, with both a website and mobile app, to map the needs of each small locality. This platform would connect each area’s needs with interested donors and relevant INGOs, with a map reflecting where and how existing funds have been allocated. It would also provide users with a way to give publicly accessible feedback, empowering local communities down to the level of the individual to determine their needs and priorities.

The technology for such a process is available, and once disseminated, Yemenis would quickly learn how to use it.

Beware Donor Conditionality

Donors normally set conditions on recipients to guarantee that their funds are properly spent. Some require that the recipient country make far-reaching reforms that impact, among other things, the political system (i.e. democratization), the size of government, and taxation and public spending. More often than not, financial support comes with demands for austerity measures which may be destabilizing. Donors are not unaware of the disruptive power of some of their conditions, but tend to brush these off as short-term survivable challenges with long-term economic benefits. Yet, this is not always the case, and in Yemen some conditions enforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had destructive outcomes that could have been avoided.

The IMF unintentionally impeded the transitional process in Yemen following the 2011 uprising, and in the view of some, set the stage for the current conflict by pushing the government in 2014 to lift fuel subsidies. They were of course aware of the fragile context of Yemen’s political environment, and expected short-term unrest, but ultimately decided to accept the risk and move forward. This is a subject of great contention, and one can always find counterarguments that do not place blame on the IMF.

Yet, it deserves serious consideration by all who would seek to place conditions on their rebuilding packages for Yemen. While conditions must and will be set, donors must be extremely attentive to the political context of their conditions—they should always question the ability of Yemen’s government to survive the social and political backlash. One war is enough.

Support Start-Ups and SMEs

Post-war reconstruction presents a country with an opportunity to create a new merchant class and diversify the accumulation of wealth. This could be achieved if start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are given the opportunity to participate in the effort and benefit from cash injection into the country. The current approach favors contractors who have track records and strong financial capacities. A quick glance into the usual terms of reference for donor-funded projects shows eligibility requirements that exclude almost everyone except well-established firms.

While this makes sense for some of the larger projects, the terms of reference should allow for recent entrants into the market, especially if they provide innovative solutions that compete in cost and quality. This is especially important when we consider that much of the professional and merchant class lost everything they had in Yemen’s civil war. This process can begin by acknowledging start-ups as key actors in the reconstruction process. Existing models recognize government, foreign states, donor organizations, and INGOs as the main actors in the process. Some may add contractors. Recognizing start-ups would be a major step toward giving them a role and facilitating a fair distribution of wealth in the process.

Invest in Wartime Innovation

War pushed Yemenis toward innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives. One important example is in the energy sector. The destruction of the power system forced people to find alternative sources of energy to keep their fridges, irrigation pumps, and communication tools functioning. Luckily, this became such a widespread phenomenon that it has been recognized internationally and received support from some international organizations. It is important to continue supporting this trend after the war ends.

At this point, the solar alternative to fuel-powered electricity is neither efficient nor advanced enough to compete with conventional electric power sources, and thus people may quickly turn back to traditional sources once they are available again. In addition to the environmental benefits of solar power, there are economic and developmental ones. Alternative sources of energy would save the country billions of dollars that can be allocated elsewhere. Moreover, the majority of Yemen’s population—especially in rural areas—has no access to electricity, making alternative sources an opportunity to expand that access.

This is just one example. Throughout the past four years, many young Yemenis have come up with solutions to the war-related problems they are facing: low-cost prosthetics, alternative techniques for dialysis and water purification, among others. Mapping those innovations, validating those that actually work, and supporting them should be one of the mandates of donor funding.

Heal the Environment, Prioritize Health

The environmental footprint of modern warfare is staggering. A bomb is not simply a bomb. Each one of the millions upon millions of bombs used in this war leaves a chemical residue that sticks in the air, seeps into the soil, and is transferred by rain and wind across vast geographies, wreaking havoc in disease for the population at large, and especially children. In a country such as Yemen, where almost two-thirds of the population live in rural areas, this crisis becomes more urgent than ever.

In the absence of healthy alternatives, people will resort to the food and water resources available, which are likely to be contaminated by disastrous chemicals. The accumulated impact on individual health and the wellbeing of the economy is beyond anyone’s capacity to measure.

The focus of donor money on this must be a priority. Innovative start-ups can play a special role here by providing low-cost solutions that can be implemented on a wide scale. For example, some start-ups have developed accessible technologies that predict mosquito-related health risks. Others have provided inexpensive solutions for water purification, especially in areas that do not have access to a supply network.

The possibilities are endless, and networks of global innovators with existing solutions, or who can tailor unforeseen ones, are out there. Donors and the Yemeni government should encourage experts who understand the country’s health and environmental challenges to engage with those innovators and to introduce them to Yemen’s challenges.

Weaken, Don’t Strengthen, Sectarianism and Regionalism

Yemen, like any other country, is composed of a complex mosaic of communities with diverse yet overlapping cultures and interests. It is simply impossible to draw borders for such a mosaic. Regrettably, the tendency has been to divide Yemen into neatly defined categories of Southern/Northern, Zaydi/Sunni, and Tribal/Urban. Yemeni political actors in the past four decades found it useful to mobilize based on these categories and weaponize them against their contenders, leading to the explosion of sectarian and regional politics with devastating consequences.

Yet, for many of us today, Yemen’s division along these lines seems ubiquitous, historical, entrenched, and natural. Sectarianism and regionalism are even used to explain the roots of the existing conflict. Some peace initiatives start from the premise that these categories should be recognized and institutionalized. But a closer look reveals sectarianism and regionalism to be local, fleeting, weak, and most importantly, contingent upon political weaponization. They are the tools and façade of the conflict, not the cause of it, and legitimizing them will certainly not enhance prospects for peace or social harmony. On the contrary, legitimizing them will sow the seeds for future conflict.

Yemen’s post-war reconstruction can either aggravate or mitigate sectarian and regional divides. To ensure the latter, funding distribution should firmly honor the fact that Yemen’s mosaic defies neat and clear divisions.

There are Yemeni politicians, consultants, and activists who will demand that funds be divided according to these categories, under the pretext of fairness and equal opportunity for all groups and regions. The greatest risk of post-war reconstruction efforts in Yemen is that it accedes to such demands and thus solidifies sectarianism and regionalism. This agenda, which sounds natural and looks appealing, only requires a closer look to realize that equal opportunity for all groups and regions is not the same as equal opportunity for Southern/ Northern, Zaydi/Sunni, and Tribal/Urban-based binaries.

Equal opportunity founded on these divisions is merely another weaponization of difference using international funds. PWR should avoid allowing itself to become a catalyst for further fragmentation in the political identity of Yemen’s communities. If there is anything this author would insist on, it is this.

Finally, it is vital to continuously reflect on how we think when we approach reconstruction. Reconstruction is not an exact science. It is essentially an art whose key tool is a deep, localized understanding of the social fabric, political structure, cultural context, and economy of a country. Being an art, at its heart lie not theories and models (especially economic ones), but rather passion and imagination—a passion for human prosperity and wellbeing, and an imagination for how to achieve this in different localities.

The hope now is that artists with imagination and passion as well as reflection and understanding will lead or significantly contribute to the process of Yemen’s reconstruction.

This article previously appeared in The Cairo Review of Public Affairs and has been republished with permission.

UN Caught Sending 24,000 Tons of Infested and Rotten “Aid” to Starving Yemenis

(Humans are Free) Yemen’s Customs Department and Consumer Protection has seized over 24,000 tons of infested, rotten, or expired food and medicines sent as “aid” to starving Yemenis since 2015. Yemen currently faces the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in the world due to four years of intense blockade.

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US Media Remains Silent as Historically Huge Protests Take Place Across Yemen

(Ahmed AbdulKareem) Massive demonstrations took place across Yemen’s major cities on Tuesday to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led war on the country. The war ostensibly began on March 26, 2015, when Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S. and other regional allies, launched a large-scale attack on Yemen under the pretext of reinstating ousted former president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The war’s real purpose was to defeat the Houthi Ansar Allah movement, which gained popular support following the Arab Spring and has grown even more powerful since the Saudi war began.

The post US Media Remains Silent as Historically Huge Protests Take Place Across Yemen appeared on Stillness in the Storm.

Middle East markets reel after Arabs sever ties with Qatar

Qatari markets are likely to suffer further in the coming days as the country is locked out of regional trade and exchange [Xinhua]

Markets in the Middle East took a hit following announcements from Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen that they had severed ties with Qatar over its alleged ties to “extremist” groups.

Qatar’s QE Index became the world’s worst performing and hardest hit Middle Eastern exchange on Monday as a result of the break in diplomatic ties when it lost 7.27 per cent of its value at press time.

The UAE’s DFM Index dropped 0.727 per cent while Bahrain’s BB All Share Index dropped 0.44 per cent.

Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul, however, gained 0.54 per cent as Kuwait’s weighted Index dropped 0.79 per cent.

Middle East stocks are also likely to feel the weight of the flight ban which was imposed on commercial carriers over Qatar. Many flights between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Yemen were cancelled indefinitely Monday; Egypt banned Qatar Airways overpass through Egyptian air space.

Although the six Arab countries cited Qatar’s alleged links to terrorist networks for the diplomatic severance, each did so for different reasons.

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government said it decided to cut ties with Qatar because the latter had links with “groups” which backed the Shia Houthi rebels. Experts say the term “groups” refers to Iran’s backing of the Houthi rebels.

For its part, Egypt has long accused Qatar of supporting the outlawed and banned Muslim Brotherhood group, which it claims are behind many terrorist attacks in the country.

The UAE has also accused Qatar of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, which it classified as a security threat. In February 2014, fiery Islamic cleric Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a staple of Al Jazeera’s Arabic programming, launched a verbal attack on the United Arab Emirates for supporting the Egyptian government following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

The UAE called on Qatar to exile the cleric, but Doha refused.

In the same years, perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha after Qatar failed to honor a joint security agreement in November 2013 that included commitments to cease support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its hosting of Gulf opposition figures.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials have criticized the Arab move saying it was counterproductive to regional stability.

The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies

Cholera outbreak kills scores in Yemen

Medical sources say that 115 people have died of cholera in the past two weeks, while thousands of children have been killed in the nearly two year conflict [Xinhua]

A cholera outbreak is sweeping through the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the Ministry of Health reported late Sunday.

“This declaration came after the cholera epidemic spreads across the capital’s districts and neighborhoods,” the health ministry said, adding that 115 people had died of the epidemic in the past two weeks alone with an additional 2,567 already infected.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has confirmed the outbreak saying that there are nearly 9,000 suspected cholera cases in the same period.

Yemen’s health system, already battered by two years of civil war, is unable to cope with this latest crisis.

The debilitated health sector has left hundreds of thousands of children at risk of starvation and death. More than 350,000 children are at risk of starvation in Yemen, with some 7 million of the population lacking basic services and health care.

“The conflict has taken a very serious toll on the water supply, the health system, the sanitation system as well as the economy and that all are about to collapse,” said ICRC Operations Director Dominik Stillhart at a press conference in Sanaa.

Debilitating civil war

In January 2015, the Houthis – who are a Shia socio-political movement – seized the presidential palace and forced then leader Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to resign. They have since sought to consolidate their hold on the country.

Hadi, who was placed under house arrest, eventually escaped and fled to Aden, the former capital of South Yemen.

He then declared Aden the new temporary capital of the entire country, but the Houthis pursued him there and captured that city as well.

The fall of Aden prompted the Saudis and some of their allies to mount military operations to rout out the Houthis, who they accuse of acting as Iranian proxies.

The fight between the Houthis and the government, which was formed in November 2014, has created a security and political vacuum that has been used by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the more militant ISIL, to grow their strength and influence.

It also terminated a Yemeni military campaign, which was beginning to bear fruit, against AQAP.

The Sunni AQAP say they are sworn enemies of the Shia Houthis – both groups have clashed several times in the past year.

Government forces recaptured the city of Aden in August 2015; some government officials soon returned there to administer rebuilding the war-battered country.

The capital of Yemen was then relocated to Aden as Houthi rebels continue to hold Sanaa as their main base of operations.

Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr and seven ministers from his cabinet arrived in the country’s temporary capital of Aden in September, asserting that their return was “final”.

Their arrival comes amid a pan-Arab effort to strengthen the government’s hold on provinces in the south of the country.

But Pan-Arab efforts to dislodge the Houthis from Sanaa have so far failed.

The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies