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Sana Uqba

Yemen Aid: The NGO battling coronavirus in a war zone

Yemen reported its first coronavirus case in April. [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 May, 2020

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The New Arab's series 'Together Against Coronavirus' looks at how NGOs in the Middle East and beyond are tackling Covid-19.
In this special series, The New Arab profiles charities, organisations, and initiatives leading the response against the coronavirus pandemic and lending a helping hand to vulnerable individuals and communities. Click here to see other articles in the series.

As the world began to come to terms with the novel coronavirus earlier this year, Yemen was largely and surprisingly left intact, reporting no cases of Covid-19 until mid-April.

Though many at the time basked in the miracle that excluded Yemen from the global pandemic, Yemen watchers and experts who had for the past five years watched the country's health sector decimated through conflict, awaited with heightened concern. 

More than 100,000 people - mostly civilians - have already been killed in Yemen's conflict, which pits the internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels that captured the capital and other major cities in 2014.

The perceived rebel coup prompted the government to appeal to its neighbours, and just months later in March 2015, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other nations militarily intervened to assist in the battle against the rebels.

Amid the pandemic, Yemen Aid has geared up to work with multiple organisations in the United States to help Yemen's health sector combat Covid-19

Despite what was expected to be a quick in-and-out mission, the Saudi-led coalition remains embroiled in the conflict, which experts believe to be now at a stalemate. The conditions of the conflict have triggered what the United Nations has described as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis" and fears for Yemen have since grown tremendously with the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The brutal conflict in Yemen, which has seen foreign actors chime in to settle their differences, has left the already impoverished country unable to handle the deadly novel coronavirus.

Read more: Escaping the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence in Afghanistan

The war has all but decimated Yemen's health care system and has left half of all health facilities unable to function - severely affecting more than 80 percent of the population that are then forced to live without essential services. This makes the country "particularly vulnerable to diseases that can generally be cured or eradicated elsewhere in the world," the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

In the weeks since the first reported case, hundreds have died across the country, and especially in the southern coastal city of Aden, where "mysterious" deaths with "Covid-like" symptoms have shaken the city to its core.

"One of the biggest challenges when responding to Covid-19 is the enormous needs in the health sector. The current state of the health sector is in complete shambles and totally deteriorated," head of charity Yemen Aid, Summer Nasser told The New Arab.

"For many countries, Covid-19 means testing and isolation in the luxury of well-equipped hospitals, but in Yemen, there are no testing capacities, no well-equipped hospitals and no protection for patients nor medical staff. In short, the difficulty is that the needs are great and support is limited since this is a global pandemic," she added.

Despite the anxieties and growing concerns, local and international organisations, like Yemen Aid, have quickly rallied to assist the war-torn country deal with the outbreak, which aid groups have anticipated could be "catastrophic".

Yemen Aid, run by American-Yemeni Nasser, was established in 2016 to provide immediate on the ground assistance and deal with challenges in Yemen. The organisation has since its establishment launched projects in food assistance, water and sanitation, health and shelter, helping thousands across the country despite challenges faced during the five-year conflict.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Yemen Aid has geared up to work with multiple organisations in the United States to help Yemen's health sector to combat Covid-19 by donating medical supplies and/or grants and has already donated more than $2 million worth of equipment to health facilities across the country.

"The first and most important of the Covid-19 response is to engage with frontline workers, who are licensed to practice, that risk their lives everyday for others. This means that we strategise with them on needs, including their opinion on the quality of PPE items," Nasser said, noting the frontline workers also assist in identifying the needs of each hospital alongside Yemen's ministry of health. 

"The second group are volunteers that bridge the gap between community and trust. They are crucial in understanding each neighbourhood and their residents, while also tailoring their needs through civil engagement," Nasser added.

The war has all but decimated Yemen's health care system and has left half of all health facilities unable to function

The organisation supports doctors and nurses with necessary PPE in major hospitals across multiple provinces and has drawn up plans to distribute materials of disinfection and sterilisation that are crucial to keeping a safe and healthy environment for patients and staff at these health facilities.

As the country continues to see its initial outbreak, with many in Yemen still naive to the real dangers of the virus, Yemen Aid has also stepped in to  create awareness campaigns, recruiting volunteers across the provinces to teach locals about the dangers of the infection, prevention techniques and how to handle it in the case of emerging symptoms.

Read more: INSAF: The Moroccan NGO helping society's most vulnerable survive the coronavirus lockdown

But Yemen has more problems. The ongoing conflict has invited numerous parties into the country, and internal issues have resulted in intra-fighting between allies. 

The Houthi rebels hold sway in the capital and multiple other major northern cities. In the south, the government has established a temporary capital in Aden but has in recent weeks faced resistance from the local Southern Transitional Council [STC] which only a few weeks ago declared "self-rule" in the city. Fighting between the Saudi-backed government and the UAE-backed southern secessionists has also been reported in other cities, most recently in Abyan and Socotra island.

"One key piece of overcoming the virus is leadership and governance," Nasser notes. "Unfortunately, the conflict has created a gap between local coordination and implementation. Public health crises require strict implementation of curfews and social distancing, but we do not see that being done in the country. For example, in one province, you may have two different authorities (regardless of their legality) that do not synchronise their efforts together.  As a result, this causes confusion to residents in cities," she added.

Furthermore, despite having multiple rebel-controlled and government-controlled health ministries, guidelines and measures have not been clearly communicated and neither authority has implemented strategies or policies to help the average Yemeni. While much of the world lives life under lockdown with minimal impact, Yemenis are quite simply unable to follow suit.

"The average citizen is not able to quarantine because their daily income will be affected. Yemen is a country where over 20 million people are impoverished due to the conflict. We do not see quarantine possible at this time since there is no financial support by the government due to a hindered economy," Nasser explained.

Even prior to the deadly and brutal conflict, Yemen was already the region's most impoverished state and one of the poorest in the world. Anxieties over its ability to handle the coronavirus pandemic, especially upon seeing the effects of the virus in more affluent nations, are well grounded.

Almost all major aid groups and international organisations, including the United Nations, have expressed severe concerns for Yemen as it witnesses its own outbreak of the pandemic. At a time of heightened feeling of helplessness, NGO's like Yemen Aid have proven to be a beacon of light for millions hoping to help in their own way. 

"For the sake of transparency, Yemen is in need of anything it can get. We welcome all medical supplies, grants and personal donations to support the health system in the country," Nasser urged.

"Since Covid-19, we have recently distributed over 2 million dollars worth of medical supplies to provinces across the country through great and well-established partnerships. We encourage organisations to continue this support and to create long term partnerships for sustainable projects in Yemen that can have an everlasting impact to citizens in the country," she added.

Yemen has officially recorded 197 cases of the coronavirus, with 33 deaths. However, authorities controlling areas of the north and south have been accused of underreporting the actual toll, especially with the spike of hundreds of "mysterious" deaths in Aden. Health facilities say they do not have adequate testing equipment to confirm Covid-19 cases in the country.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

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