The Yemen Crisis: How Older People are Affected

Adapted from HelpAge International’s Statement by Madeleine McGivern, Humanitarian Advocacy Adviser

The civil war in Yemen has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with over 22 million people currently in need of emergency relief and assistance. 

The fallout from the ongoing conflict—a deadly cholera epidemic, malnutrition, and the indiscriminate violation of human rights—has had a devastating impact on Yemenis of all ages, but especially on children and older people.

In a statement by UNOCHA’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, “the immune systems of millions of people are now literally collapsing, making them – especially children and the elderly – more likely to succumb to malnutrition, cholera, and other diseases.”[i]

HelpAge International estimates that 1.65 million older people are at risk and in need of humanitarian assistance.[ii] Based on the country’s available demographic data, we’ve identified three urgent challenges for older Yemenis:

  • 50% of older women and 60% of older men surveyed were unable to access healthcare;
  • Just 2% of women and 3% of men can afford essential medications;
  • 95% of older people have no access to any income.[iii]

Severe Disruptions in Health Care

About half of the country’s health facilities are down. Those that remain open are often inaccessible for many Yemenis who are too poor to afford care.[iv] Reports from the UN indicate that because people are unable to reach care, they are dying at home. Because older people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension require regular doses of medication, their health is at particular risk of deteriorating. Power outages, for example, have made it nearly impossible to store insulin, an essential diabetes medication for managing blood sugar levels, because it requires refrigeration.

When it comes to infectious diseases such as cholera, older people are also disproportionately at risk. According to the World Health Organization, older people accounted for the majority of deaths from cholera, 31%, despite accounting for only 5% of all reported cholera cases.[v] The exceptionally high mortality rate among older people from cholera cannot only be attributed to weakened immune systems. Such an assumption belies the pervasive challenges older people face in accessing humanitarian services and health care.

We know from first-hand experience and reporting that older people and people with disabilities face serious barriers to accessing information and services. These barriers are well documented in HelpAge International’s report Missing Millions, which explains all the ways that older people with disabilities are prevented from accessing food and water, health services, employment, and housing. Standard food rations, for example, can be too difficult for older people to digest or too high in sodium for those with hypertension to eat.

Calls for an Inclusive Humanitarian Response

Increases in funding and greater flexibility are needed from humanitarian donors to meet the urgent health, nutrition, and protection needs of people in Yemen, especially older people who face additional challenges in accessing aid.

Agencies with boots on the ground must ensure older people and other groups particularly at risk are included in need assessments, relief distributions, and programming. Many older people, especially women, who need assistance can’t access it. 82% of older women surveyed by HelpAge International said they are entirely reliant on humanitarian aid, but only 21% of them said they could access it. Special attention must be placed from the get-go to ensure responses are designed for all members of the community, especially those who are so often marginalized.

Humanitarian agencies should ensure coordination mechanisms develop and implement tailored solutions. Inclusive forms of assistance include distributing cash assistance to older people, providing stocks of essential medication for chronic conditions, availing age-inclusive food rations and distributions, and engaging older people in protection initiatives.

A comprehensive political solution that leads to lasting peace in Yemen is critical. Until that time, HelpAge urges the conflict’s key stakeholders to abide by international humanitarian law. Attacks against civilians and crucial infrastructure such as health clinics must end. We call for greater, more inclusive humanitarian access so that the millions of people suffering in Yemen can get the relief they need.

[i] Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Mark Lowcock, Remarks to the Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Yemen – Yemen. (2018, October 23). https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/under-secretary-general-humanitarian-affairs-and-emergency-relief-coordinator-mr-mark-4

[ii] Data from a HelpAge assessment of 1,523 older women and men aged between 50 – 80 years old in Hadramout governorate.

[iii]Yemen Demographic Profile 2018. (2018, January 20). https://www.indexmundi.com/yemen/demographics_profile.html

Based on HelpAge’s estimate that 7.5% of the conflict-affected population is over 50 years old.

[iv]Half the population of Yemen at risk of famine: UN emergency relief chief. (2018, October 23). https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/10/1023962

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