Health crisis in Yemen, Myanmar

I thought friends don’t let their dearest friends starve children

Muhammad Hamid Zaman November 14, 2017
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Two crises of astronomical proportions are unfolding not too far from home. Both crises, in the not- too-distant east and the west of the country, are creating unimaginable suffering for the most vulnerable. In both, we have to look deep down, ask where do we stand, and how do we convey the most important of moral values to those who we call our best of friends.

The crisis in Yemen, driven by the Saudis, has already created public health problems unprecedented in recent history. The cholera outbreak, created in large part by bombing of the poorest country of the region by the richest, is now considered to be the worst in history. It has already affected nearly a million people, with 600,000 children among them. Let that sink in for a second.

Saudi-led strikes hit defence ministry in Yemen capital

There is a public health crisis, affecting largely children, who have no drugs, no clean water and no hope, unfolding in our neighbourhood, created by one of our dearest friends. Cholera unfortunately is not the only challenge the Yemenis and their children are facing. The war has decimated the infrastructure, roads, houses, schools and hospitals, and have ruined the lives of millions more in every way imaginable. A famine is becoming increasingly likely due to the complete blockade by Saudi-led forces. Our individual and collective silence speaks volumes about our values. So does the fact that the so- called joint army driving this crisis is run by one of our countrymen.

Looking eastward, the crisis in Myanmar has gotten more public attention, but little has been said about China’s strong position that continues to defend the brutal regime that is responsible for the atrocities. Our gentle and warm thoughts about the Rohingya Muslims talk about India’s problematic stance, but conveniently ignore the strong support of the Chinese for the perpetrators. This is not the only dimension of our hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of standing in support of Rohingya Muslims but not the Yemenis is both obvious and ugly.

While we should hope that the government would do the right thing, the reality is that it is unlikely to happen. The performance of the government on international political fronts has been largely disappointing. So expecting that there would be any active and serious effort to diffuse the crisis in Yemen, or diplomatic efforts to open up avenues for humanitarian relief, is naïve to expect. But what is more disappointing is the almost non-existent discussion among civil society, academia and the media.

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The discussion in academic and analytical quarters has been limited, and few, if any, have taken the government to task on its silence. Newspapers that have historically made other crises in Palestine and Chechnya major themes seem blind to the crisis in Yemen. With the exception of an occasional story on the back pages, and an afterthought in the news bulletins, there has been nothing but deliberate silence. But just as the government’s silence is inexcusable, our own lack of sincerity is equally disappointing.

The issues of international politics are neither simple, nor most convenient. Yet, there is nothing controversial about the right to life and health for all people. There ought not to be any political calculation when it comes to standing up for little children whose odds for survival continue to diminish by the day. We will be judged by history on what we did, and what we didn’t do, and when did we stand up for justice and when we decided to stay put while children were starving.

Perhaps it is also a test for the official rhetoric. We say that both China and Saudi Arabia are among our best friends. I thought friends don’t let their dearest friends starve children.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2017.

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