BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced that the kingdom and its allies would observe a unilateral cease-fire in the war in Yemen starting at noon on Thursday, a move that could pave the way for ending the brutal five-year-old conflict.
Saudi officials said the cease-fire sought to jump-start peace talks brokered by the United Nations and had been motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where the health care system has been ravaged by years of blockade and conflict.
The gesture is the first by any government entangled in an international armed conflict to halt hostilities at least in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has traumatized the world. The leader of the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres, pleaded for a worldwide humanitarian cease-fire two weeks ago because of the pandemic.
While Yemen is one of the few countries in the world yet to have a confirmed case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, aid workers fear that an outbreak there would be devastating for the war-torn country. Saudi Arabia itself has struggled to stop the virus from spreading, including inside its own sprawling royal family.
The cease-fire, the Saudi officials said, would last for two weeks and include Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, which was effectively toppled in 2014 when a rebel group aligned with Iran and known as the Houthis took over much of the country’s northwest and its capital, Sana.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been fighting since March 2015 to push the Houthis back and restore the Yemeni government — with little success.
The Houthis were not consulted before the cease-fire was announced, Saudi officials said, speaking on condition that they not be identified by name, and the kingdom reserved the right to respond if the Houthis fired missiles into Saudi territory.
But shortly before the Saudi announcement, a senior Houthi official, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, posted a detailed, eight-page plan to end the war on his Twitter account, raising questions about whether the warring parties were competing to appear more interested in peace than their enemies.
When asked why the Saudis would suddenly, after five years of war, propose a nationwide cease-fire, Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Yemen, attributed it to the pandemic.
“Coronavirus is the answer,” she said. “Coronavirus has freaked out everyone in Yemen.”
She called the Saudi announcement “the biggest concession and the biggest confidence-building measure that the Saudis have given since the beginning of the war.”
And the Saudis appeared to be using it as a way to gauge the Houthis’ willingness to negotiate.
“It really is a test case,” she said.
That meant that the cease-fire’s immediate success will largely depend on compliance by the Houthis, whose leaders did not immediately respond to the Saudi announcement.
Their forces have been making gains against Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in recent months, which may make them hesitant to give concessions. But they could see benefits to engaging in a peace process, if they feel that it recognizes the power they have gained during the war.
Saudi officials said the Yemeni government, most of whose officials live in Riyadh at the kingdom’s expense, had agreed to the cease-fire as well, but no Yemeni officials were on a telephone conference call with journalists to announce the cease-fire.
After the cease-fire was announced, Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister, wrote on Twitter that the kingdom would give the United Nations $500 million for humanitarian work in Yemen and $25 million to fight the coronavirus.
Despite the cease-fire’s tenuousness, Martin Griffiths, the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, hailed the announcement in a statement, saying it should create a fertile environment for peace talks.
“The parties must now utilize this opportunity and cease immediately all hostilities with the utmost urgency, and make progress towards comprehensive and sustainable peace,” Mr. Griffiths said.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations described Yemen as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. A large majority of the country’s 28 million people face hunger, disease and other deprivations.
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Saeed Al-Batati from Al Mukalla, Yemen.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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