COVID-19 + 5 years of conflict: The impact for Yemen’s people

Self isolation? Travel restrictions? Separation of families? Lethal epidemic? These are already all too familiar to the people of Yemen.

After five years of conflict and 24 million people already reliant on humanitarian need for meeting their basic needs, what impact will COVID-19 have on this already desperate situation?

Aaron Brent, CARE Yemen’s Country Director, shares some answers.

How is COVID-19 affecting Yemen?

So far in Yemen, thankfully there are no confirmed cases. However, the entire country has been closed off as a prevention measure. That means that all entries and exits out of air, sea or land routes have been closed. Yemen is effectively divided into to two parts because of the war – in the northern part there is one group of authorities, in the southern part there is the internationally recognised government – and the crossings between those two areas have also been closed.

Yemen was already one of the most isolated places in the world. The Sana’a international airport has been closed for about 4 years now with only humanitarian flights allowed in. Yemenis, unfortunately, are very used to living in an isolated state compared to any other country in the world, so these effects aren’t as drastic for them, because they have been living the exact same thing the whole world is going through now for the past 5 years.

However, the fact that now they can’t move between the north and south of the country will definitely have a big effect, because there are families that live on both sides and that means they can’t get back to their family and will be stuck one way or another. The authority’s measures are appropriate – they’re in line with what other countries are doing – but that doesn’t erase this extra hardship on top of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis for the people of Yemen.

What will these travel restrictions mean for CARE programming and individual families’ lives?

It will have a massive effect, especially because the majority of CARE’s work is life-saving humanitarian aid. Any type of movement restriction that is going to affect the ability of humanitarian agencies to deliver that life-saving aid is going to be catastrophic.

One of our biggest programmes, in partnership with the World Food Programme, is monthly food distributions to the most vulnerable and needy people. These are people who are on the edge of famine and they depend on these general food distributions to stay alive. So, if those are impacted, it will have a huge and immediate impact on people.

This is a population where there are an estimated 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, even before the current COVID-19 situation, so Yemenis are already vulnerable. They have gone through 5 years of total isolation, had to undergo the impacts of multiple outbreaks of cholera – and are still in the midst of one right now. We’ve also experienced dengue fever and a diphtheria epidemic in the past years, so COVID-19 is coming on top of all these.

What are you most worried about?

My biggest fear is not being able to get our team members out to deliver essential humanitarian aid, and for us to not be able to reach those most vulnerable communities. However, I am optimistic that because we work very closely with the authorities both in the northern and southern parts of the country, and they do understand the urgency of this assistance, that we will work with them to find solutions to this – at least for the most critical humanitarian life-saving aid.

Does it make efforts to reach a ceasefire more important than ever?

CARE has been calling for all parties to implement a ceasefire for years; the only solution to this conflict is through negotiation and diplomacy and not military means, so I would hope this would be an opportunity to have serious talks and to find a peaceful end to this conflict. Whether or not it will, I couldn’t say.

How are your staff feeling in light of this latest pandemic on top of everything else?

Our staff are quite scared; the Yemeni healthcare system is in ruins. This is what happens after 5 years of war: healthcare is barely there. We do everything we can to support the healthcare system, but the reality is when you see healthcare systems in very advanced countries like the UK being overwhelmed, then the impacts here in Yemen are unimaginable. So for our staff that is a really big worry.

On the other hand, Yemeni people are extremely resilient, and they’ve lived through the worst times imaginable for the last 5 years. They know how to deal with such things, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is very scary.

Are there any lessons learned from Yemen’s numerous disease outbreaks that would be applicable to COVID-19?

The current public health messages around the COVID-19 pandemic, telling people to wash their hands and keep surfaces clean, are exactly the same principles applied for any infectious disease outbreak, so these are the same type of measures that NGOs have been working on for years in Yemen. Those same types of good hygiene behaviour that are key to stopping outbreaks like cholera are also applicable to COVID-19.

What is CARE doing to help people protect themselves against COVID-19?

The good news is so far that there are no confirmed cases in Yemen. Because it is already one of the most isolated countries in the world, we hope that any outbreak will be limited. But if it does happen the healthcare system is certainly not set up to be able to immediately cope, in terms of effective quarantine areas, ventilators and life support, so this would be a real worry.

CARE doesn’t work on medical issues in Yemen, but what we can do is make sure that in all our ongoing programmes – through food distributions, water and sanitation interventions such as building water systems and household sanitation as well as education programmes – we integrate COVID-19 prevention and awareness raising activities around what people need to do to protect themselves, and what happens if they get sick. We have a very big reach in the country – we work in 13 governorates and reach around 3.4 million people annually – so the best and most effective thing we can do right now is to get that message out there, as well as to help dispel the many myths surrounding the virus.

What is your message to the international community in light of the 5-year anniversary of the Yemen conflict and these latest COVID-19 developments?

We know how much the COVID-19 virus has affected people’s lives all around the world and forced people into difficult economic situations, and into isolation. I would just ask people, while they’re going through this, to think of the Yemeni people who have been in this exact same position, but for the last 5 years. Not for 14 days or one month, but for 5 years. Yemenis have had to go through the same thing the rest of the world is going through now, PLUS an active armed conflict going on all around them.

I hope COVID-19 can help raise awareness of the plight of the Yemeni people and increase empathy, now that more people may be able to better understand at least some of what the everyday Yemeni man and woman face on a day to day basis. We are calling on the whole world to work with the relevant and interested parties in Yemen to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict.

I know that for the rest of the world it is a very difficult time – for most unprecedented – and many will suffer economic crisis as a result of this. But for Yemen when the conflict really began to escalate 5 years ago it was also unprecedented. My plea is that, no matter how bad it gets in your country, it is much worse in Yemen. So please spare a thought for the people of Yemen at this time too. A big effort needs to be made by the international community, by NGOS, UN agencies and donor governments to not forget Yemen – no matter how difficult the situation gets in the rest of the world, it’s worse here.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.