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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.