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WASSERMAN: Yemen Civil War demonstrates that global thinking must shift

Opinions Column: A Healthy Dose of Justice

On Sept. 5, I wrote to you describing how I was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut to write this column. I told you that I believe that we, as people, have a moral obligation to ensure that others are happy, healthy and thriving. Since then, I have attempted to point out the ways in which we are not doing that and hint at suggestions to ways that we might improve in the execution of such a moral obligation. But departing from the initial global perspective laid out by Vonnegut, week after week, I have recounted to you the travesties of American party politics, misconceptions of health care policies and our shortcomings in carrying out the jobs that our social contract deems must be done. I feel that to get at the crux of justice’s intersection with health, we must broaden the scope beyond approaches to justice that follow contractarianism, and extend past the borders of the United States.

In Yemen, a civil war has been taking place since 2015, complicated by the backing of a Saudi-led coalition of states fighting against the Houthi rebel faction. Since the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi government was overthrown in 2015 by Houthi rebels and allied Yemeni army troops, the United Nations (UN) reports that more than 10,000 people have been killed and more than 7 million are in need of food assistance. Deliberate targeting of critical infrastructure like hospitals, bridges, factories and sanitation facilities, as well as blockades designed to halt medical supplies and food assistance, have been brutal realities of the war, resulting in a grim picture of malnutrition and disease across the population. Beginning in former President Barack Obama's administration, the United States has supported Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis, selling arms and launching retaliatory drone strikes.

In October 2016, a cholera outbreak began in Yemen that has accelerated to catastrophic levels today. Vibrio cholerae is a bacterial infection that occurs when water is contaminated with fecal matter containing the bacterium. In most high-income countries, cholera is an easily treatable disease that can be taken care of with oral rehydration therapy. But, as in the case of a deadly conflict like the Yemeni Civil War, the destruction of infrastructure and blockade of essential medicines can result in an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of Nov. 5, cholera has caused 908,400 suspected cases and 2,192 reported deaths in 22 out of 23 governorates in Yemen. With the failure of sewage systems, people are relying on contaminated wells for drinking water, and heavy rains since April have accelerated contamination and infection. Due to co-morbidity with malnutrition making the cholera epidemic in Yemen particularly deadly, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) representative Meritxell Relano said, “With the malnutrition we have among children, if they get diarrhea, they are not going to get better.” The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that two thirds of the population in Yemen are food insecure, with 7 million relying on food assistance. The WFP has only been able to provide 3.5 million with full rations, with the other remaining half only receiving 60 percent of subsistence.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen requires $2.3 billion (USD) this year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), but still has a funding gap of $1 billion (USD). Ironically, it is the countries who are fueling the war that are also the biggest donors to its relief effort, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While I would like to poke fun at this fiscal cognitive dissonance, there are real victims in this conflict, with real human lives and real suffering as a result of such policy to attack and then attempt to repair.

It appears as if the world has forgotten about Yemen, at least in the United States. This should be a front page story, but the times we live in have decided otherwise. We too often believe that we only owe health and welfare to those with whom we share a social contract, that we should expect to profit ourselves from the cooperation with those who share a given background or geographic location. But reorienting our thinking toward a capabilities approach to justice, that justice for all requires a basic set of human entitlements for all, may encourage our global actors to take more constructive action on crises like Yemen. As I close many of these columns, I must reiterate that I do not claim to know the solutions to complicated geopolitical issues like Yemen’s civil war, but global thinking must shift so that no more unnecessary suffering and death may occur.

Jake Wasserman is a Bloustein School senior majoring in public health with a minor in cognitive science. His column, “A Healthy Dose of Justice” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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