NRC education team takes precautionary measures against COVID-19 into consideration during distribution of High Energy Biscuits to displaced families in Lahj governorate.

The education team used to distribute these biscuits to children in schools as replacement for the food children would have been receiving in schools but nowadays the schools are closed so our team is distributing it to displaced families.

Photo: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly/NRC

Yemen’s fight against Covid-19

It was the moment everyone had feared: on 29 April, Yemen reported its first two deaths as a result of Covid-19. More cases and deaths have followed.

Yemen had been one of the last countries to confirm a case of the coronavirus, and for weeks the nation held its collective breath, hoping the outbreak might be contained. But despite tracing and testing efforts, the worst has now happened.

Yemen is more vulnerable to the pandemic than almost any other country in the world. Five years of war and starvation have decimated the health system, lowered people’s physical immunity, and exposed them to the worst outbreak of cholera in recorded history. Now they are exposed to Covid-19.

But we can still act to save lives. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has been working around the clock with local authorities and communities, to help halt the spread of the virus and provide a lifeline during this pandemic.

NRC team distributing NFIs like mattresses, buckets, plastic sheets and plastci mats to displaced families in Al-Anad camp in Lahj governorate under the support of the UNHCR, taking precautionary measures against COVID-19 into consideration

Photo: Ahmed Aref/NRC
Read caption In Al-Anad camp in Lahj governorate, a poster explains how to take precautionary measures against Covid-19. These materials were developed by UNICEF and distributed by NRC, as part of a hygiene awareness effort funded by European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. Photo: Ahmed Aref/NRC.

1. Getting the word out

One of the biggest barriers to fighting Covid-19 is a lack of knowledge. People want to protect their families, but are not always sure how to do it.

Our teams on the ground across Yemen have been going door-to-door, wearing appropriate protective clothing, to explain how to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. We have also been putting up easy-to-read posters and demonstrating safe handwashing practices.

And to amplify the message, fun role-plays are being broadcast on local radio stations to explain the importance of handwashing with soap, social distancing and other good hygiene practices to prevent diseases. These are expected to reach half a million people.

Al-Raboui Abdu Saeed, a displaced man from Taiz city to Taiz’ Al-Shimayateen district says: “We heard about two corona cases in Taiz and people in this area buy food to stock in their houses in case there is a curfew but for us we can’t do anything.

“Most of the displaced people in this school [camp] depend on daily work or begging in the market so we can’t buy food to stock and we can’t buy soap or sanitizer.

Al-Raboui with dozens other displaced families live on Al-Fajr Al-Jadeed School in Taiz which has changed into a camp for displaced families.

He confirmed that more than a family live in the same room and it is difficult for them to take any precautionary measures against COVID-19. “There are more than ten people live in the same room so how can we keep safe.

“We have been suffering from 2015 and this disease may worsen our life. We pray Allah to save us from this disease.”

Al-Raboui called on organizations to help them and provide them with enough food so they can close the door of the school and live inside it if COVID-19 spreads in Taiz. “If only one case in this camp got infected by corona, it will spread among us easily.”

Photo: Nasser Abdulkareem/NRC
Read caption Al-Raboui Abdu Saeed is a father who had to flee his home in Taiz city and take shelter in a school. Photo: Nasser Abdulkareem/NRC

2. Helping families stay at home

Even if people know how to keep safe, their living conditions can make it very hard. Millions of people who have fled the conflict are sheltering in under-serviced camps or inside public buildings. This makes isolating at home very difficult.

Al-Raboui Abdu Saeed, a father from Taiz, lives with dozens of other displaced families in Al-Fajr Al-Jadeed School. “There are more than ten people living in the same room,” he says, “so how can we keep safe?” If they had enough supplies, Al-Raboui explains, they would close the door of the school to the outside world and not risk catching the virus.

That’s why we have been scaling up our cash assistance to displaced families. This gives them the power to buy items like soap, blankets, fuel, and food. Where local markets aren’t functioning well enough, we have been distributing packs of useful hygiene and household items directly to families, including over 27,000 kilograms of washing powder since March.

In response to COVID-19, NRC under the support of the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) distributed soap to displaced families in Hajjah’s Abs district.

Photo: Ala'a Hebah/NRC
Read caption NRC distributing soap to displaced families in Hajjah’s Abs district, with the support of the Swedish International Development Agency. Photo: Ala'a Hebah/NRC

3. Soap, soap, and more soap

Soap is one of the cheapest and most effective tools to fight the spread of the virus. But half of all families in Yemen report not having soap, and prices have been rising.

Yasin Mohammed was a farmer until the fighting forced him to flee his home. His family of eight now live inside a single tent made from wood and plastic sheeting in Hajjah’s Abs district. “We know that coronavirus spreads in a dramatic way in crowded places like camps,” says Yasin, “so we try to keep our distance. One of the best precautionary measures is handwashing but most displaced people can't afford to buy soap.”

NRC has been rapidly distributing soap and other hygiene materials across Yemen - over 300,000 bars of soap in two months - making sure Yasin and hundreds of others can keep their families safe.

Hassan Abdullah Ahmed Abdu, aged 36, is originally from Hajjah’s Haradh district. He fled his home—together with his family and all their neighbours—when the conflict reached their village in 2015. Like many other displaced people, he left in a hurry and only managed to take the most important things with him, like documents.

Hassan is a father of five children, and he used to work at many jobs, including selling Qat. But after he left his village, he could not find another job. He is now dependent on humanitarian assistance to provide for his family.

Hassan arrived in Shib Al-Argah village, in Al-Hodeidah’s Az-Zuhrah district. where many other displaced families live inside Oshas (straw huts) and since 2015 he has been suffering to provide his family with basic needs.

“Since we arrived this area, I have been suffering. Providing my family with food and other basic services and obtaining water was the main challenge for us,” he says. “My family and other families in this village used to walk for two kilometres to fetch water from the well, [carrying it] either on their heads or on donkeys. That was real suffering.”

“My family and other families in this village used to walk for two kilometres to fetch water from the well, [carrying it] either on their heads or on donkeys. That was real suffering.”

Thanks to the support of UK Aid, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) intervened and ended this suffering. First, NRC constructed masonry tanks and installed pumps. Distribution pipes were then added, and 11 water distribution points constructed.

When NRC began the project, Hassan helped directly with the construction. As part of the cash-for-work team, he worked on the excavation and backfilling works to extend the water pipes to provide clean water.

“After the completion of the water project, conditions have become better,” Hassan says. The new pipes bring clean water directly to key water points where families are gathered. “Our difficulty getting clean water was completely solved,” he adds.

Hassan is completely satisfied with the project and also feels great happiness now that it has finished, as it has alleviated a burden from the community. This is especially true for women and children, who usually had the task of collecting the water. Now they can gather the water they need daily without any trouble.

“It is good that we have enough water and we have started to adapt to the life in the camp,” Hassan concludes, “but my dream is still to return my village. I hope the war ends and I can return.”

Photo: Ahmed Ibrahim/NRC
Read caption A water network built by NRC, with the support of UK Aid, in Hajjah's Abs district. Photo: Ahmed Ibrahim/NRC

4. Keeping the water on

Of course, soap is only useful if there is clean water to use it with.

“There is not enough water in many camps, and the camps usually aren’t clean, especially during the rainy season,” explains NRC staff member Abdulrazaq Alwan.

This is why we are doing all we can to keep all our usual water and sanitation services running. This includes providing clean water and water filters for displaced people and host communities, and helping to install latrines and maintain sewage systems.

As response to COVID-19, the NRC team in Amran governorate launched a cleaning campaign in selected IDP camps to ensure the camps are sanitary.

Photo: Asma Mushabib/NRC
Read caption NRC has donated rubbish bins, brooms and other cleaning equipment to municipal cleaners in Amran, thanks to the support of the Norwegian government, to help keep camps in their area clean and prevent the spread of disease. Photo: Asma Mushabib/NRC

5. Giving sanitation teams the right equipment and know-how

Bins, wheelbarrows, brooms, gloves and rubbish bags – these are important weapons in the fight against coronavirus.

For the last few weeks, NRC has been giving municipal cleaning workers the supplies they need to keep displacement camps and cities disease-free. We have also been rapidly training the teams on the fundamentals of how the virus is transmitted—and how to stop it.

“Cleaning is not a new thing for us. We have been doing it for years!” Hisham Abdullah, a cleaner in Mokha city, told us. “But NRC’s training showed us how to work safely so we won’t be affected by the coronavirus or help spread it.”

Mohammed Al-Hawsali, a displaced man in Souk Al-Lail camp in Amran governorate confirmed that displaced people are in dire need of the basics so they are scared of COVID-19.

“We live inside tents in this camp and there is no enough water and no money to buy soap, Mohammed says. “We practice our regular life and we go to the market to work so we’re worry that we will be the weakest victim of corona.

Mohammed confirmed that they didn’t take any precautionary measures into considerations: “If we don’t go to work, we won’t find food to eat so we are forced to work as there is no food in our tents and no money in our pockets.”

Photo: Nasser Abdulkareem/NRC
Read caption Mohammed Al-Hawsali, a displaced father who is living with his family in Souk Al-Lail camp, Amran governorate. The family relies on daily work at the markets. Photo: Nasser Abdulkareem/NRC

6. Strengthening the lifeline 

While people across Yemen fear the virus, displaced families are in the most precarious position of all. Even if they can avoid Covid-19, they have left behind their jobs and belongings to flee. Millions of people like them are just one step away from famine.

“If we don’t go to work, we won’t find food to eat,” explains displaced father Mohammed Al-Hawsali, who is sheltering in an informal settlement with his family.

With work drying up because of restrictions and curfews to fight Covid-19, it’s critical we continue all our usual projects that provide food and other basic supplies. This is a lifeline for many families that we simply cannot cut.

From ensuring social distancing in queues, to providing hand sanitiser and disinfecting surfaces, NRC has put in place measures to keep these activities safe. Where our activities can’t go ahead in the usual way, we have adapted them. For example, as schools across Yemen have been closed, we are now distributing the high-energy biscuits usually given to children at school directly to displaced families.

See a typical distribution of food in Yemen, and how NRC has adapted this process to help keep people safe

NRC education team takes precautionary measures against COVID-19 into consideration during distribution of High Energy Biscuits to displaced families in Lahj governorate.

The education team used to distribute these biscuits to children in schools as replacement for the food children would have been receiving in schools but nowadays the schools are closed so our team is distributing it to displaced families.

Photo: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly/NRC
Read caption The NRC team taking measures against Covid-19 during a distribution of high-energy biscuits to displaced families in Lahj governorate, thanks to support from the Yemen Humanitarian Fund. Photo: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly/NRC

7. Keeping our staff safe

In everything we do to protect others, our teams also make sure to keep themselves safe.

Since early April, we have been putting in place measures and providing protective equipment to our staff, to allow them to do their work safely. This is not only our responsibility to one another, but helps ensure that we can keep delivering essential aid.

Read more about our work in Yemen