“Nothing is better than seeing my city clean.”
Hisham has been a cleaner for more than ten years in his home city of Mocha, in the south-west of Yemen. “I work every day from early in the morning until noon,” he says.
He is grateful for his job with the local council, which is the only source of income for his family of seven. But it is not an easy job. There is a lot of physical effort needed to sweep the streets and heft heavy rubbish bags. And at times it is made harder by the attitudes of Hisham’s fellow residents.
“Sometimes we can face insulting remarks from people,” he admits.
Perhaps for this reason, Hisham has always appreciated those who have been supportive of his work, helping him to clean outside their houses and shops. “When the community joins us in a cleaning campaign,” he explains, “it encourages us to work harder.”
But recently, Hisham has been aware of a shift in attitudes. Because Yemen is now battling what the United Nations has called “full-blown” transmission of the novel coronavirus: Covid-19.
A race against time
It was the moment everyone had feared.
National authorities, UN and aid agencies had been racing against time to put in place measures against Covid-19. But five years of debilitating war means that Yemen is at a terrible disadvantage: severely weakened by hunger and disease, with its health system decimated.
How to prevent transmission, when only one in every three people in Yemen have proper access to clean water, and three in four families have no soap? How to treat the ill, when only half of all health facilities are fully operational, and much of the country’s medical equipment is obsolete?
The fear has only deepened as deaths from the virus have quickly escalated. As senior UN representative Mark Lowcock put it, “epidemiologists warn that Covid-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences” than elsewhere.
“Everyone started to respect us”
On the ground in Yemen, the pandemic has brought the importance of hygiene into sharp relief, something Hisham has witnessed first-hand.
Before the conflict, Mocha was a small coastal city, known for its fishing – and also long ago as a major coffee port, after which caffè mocha was named. But in the last three years it has become a destination for thousands of displaced families seeking safety from the conflict. This influx of people has meant an increased need for cleaning teams like Hisham’s.
“We clean all camps in the city and around it,” Hisham explains. “Honestly, the displaced people appreciate our work. Most of them collect their rubbish in plastic bags and put them in front of their tents.”
Since Covid-19 hit Yemen, people are taking cleaning more seriously. Even those who had previously been uncooperative now see hygiene as a priority.
“Everyone started to respect us and help us in cleaning their neighbourhoods,” Hisham says.
Gloves and masks
In the wake of the first confirmed case, Hisham’s team is one of many being supported by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) with funding from the Norwegian government, to step up their efforts to keep local markets and camps clean.
“Cleaning is not a new thing for us. We have been doing it for years,” Hisham says. “But the NRC training showed us how to work safely so we wouldn’t be affected by the coronavirus or help spread it.”
Hisham was particularly grateful for the protective equipment that came with the training. “NRC provided us with gloves, face masks and cleaning tools.”
This same assistance has been rolled out in multiple governates across Yemen, alongside a barrage of other efforts to help contain the virus, including campaigns to disinfect public areas. Not only does this help fight Covid-19, but also dengue and other diseases, and the ongoing cholera epidemic in Yemen.
Working hard to protect his city
Yemen was already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Now Covid-19 threatens to escalate the suffering immeasurably.
For now, Yemen must fight back as best it can. That means health authorities working with aid groups to prevent the spread of the virus and to treat infected people. It means an immediate ceasefire is needed, so that all efforts can focus on the pandemic.
And it means people like Hisham going out each morning with his broom and rubbish-bags, working hard to protect his city.
“The happiest day for me,” Hisham says, “is when I see that Mocha is clean, and people are helpful and aware about the importance of cleaning.”