End-stage starvation is rare, but devastating. After exhausting its fat stores, the body breaks down its organs for energy: muscle, liver, kidney and finally the heart. The blood itself becomes toxic, in a dangerously narrow balance between brain death and cardiac arrest.
As a pediatrician, I wish to protect all children from these symptoms. But as an American taxpayer, I worry about my contribution to the starvation of children in Yemen. President Biden recently announced an end to U.S. funding of the ongoing war, but the years of destruction require vast reparation beyond this action.
The war in Yemen is a crisis of unconscionable magnitude. This war and its famine have caused over 200,000 deaths since 2015. Of the Yemeni remaining, 80% require immediate assistance and 50% are without food, including over 12 million children. The collapse of primary health care has led to outbreaks of cholera and coronavirus without means to control them.
This is in part caused by a land, sea and air blockade instated by the American-backed Saudi forces to prevent foreign assistance from reaching the Houthi rebels. The isolation of Yemen has also prevented humanitarian assistance, such as food and medicine, from reaching those in need. This starvation blockade is in clear violation of international humanitarian law.
I met a Yemeni representative from Doctors Without Borders in 2016. He told me, “The children do not have access to immunization, growth or weight monitoring, access to food … and no access to health care if sick. The lack of health care for these children is causing severe malnutrition, infection [and] increased risk of death.” In the five years since meeting him, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster for children received ongoing support from U.S. tax dollars, military aid and political complicity.
The United States has been a driving force in the war, supplying the Saudi coalition with billions in armament sales. This funding has continued despite frequent Saudi war crimes, including the bombing of schools, civilian centers and hospitals with missiles made and sold by the US. In 2018, a Saudi aircraft dropped a U.S.-made bomb onto a school bus, killing 40 children. Just months later, the Trump administration issued an emergency declaration for an $8.1 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, in opposition to Congress’s bipartisan support to end funding of the war.
The crisis is now worsened by the United States withdrawing aid from the Yemeni people. In 2019, Yemen received 87% of the estimated $4.2 billion needed for basic survival services. But in 2020, the United States cut its aid by a third, and Yemen received less than 50% of what it needed. When two million children require medical treatment for acute malnutrition, cutting aid is imminently consequential. Without other means for self-preservation, the Yemeni people bear the full impact of this policy.
In February, the Biden administration made the right decision to withdraw funding for the war, but this does not reverse years of U.S.-backed destruction. The United States now has a moral obligation to help repair the collapsed health care system and to provide life-saving assistance to these 12 million children. Now, Yemen needs humanitarian aid.
“We cannot save the collapsed health system alone, we need help from the international community to find a solution to the war,” the Yemeni representative pleaded to me.
To protect this generation of children, the United States must reaffirm itself as a leader in human rights. The Biden administration must restore full humanitarian funding to Yemen through a coalition of its allies to mitigate the deepening famine and child health crisis. Failing to restore aid will subject the survivors of this war to preventable starvation.