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COVID-19 in Yemen: Yemeni organisations on the frontline

17 April 2020

Saferworld spoke to 13 Yemeni civil society organisations we partner with in Aden, Taiz, Marib and Hadramaut on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Yemen, exploring how their staff and volunteers are playing a critical role in helping Yemeni communities cope with the pandemic.

“Even though this is not our domain  of work, we’ve been forced several times throughout the war to adapt to the circumstances of the changing reality.” - Noman Al-Hakami, Youth Organization for Development & Democracy, Taiz

The looming threat of a major outbreak COVID-19 in Yemen is the latest in a string of challenges that Yemeni civil society organisations (CSOs) have had to face and adapt to during the past five years of conflict. The war, now in its sixth year, has left Yemen shattered with tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured, a broken economy leaving hundreds of thousands of families with no steady source of income, and a breakdown of public services aggravated by two divided governing bodies in Sana’a and Aden.

Small and medium-sized civil society organisations – often working with only a handful of paid staff and wide networks of volunteers – have been crucial in responding to the impact of the conflict in Yemen. Embedded in their communities, these organisations have weathered challenges from sieges, urban warfare and airstrikes to inflation, food and fuel shortages, while navigating complex local political divides. “CSOs have been playing a similar role to that of local authorities since the war began. Where the authorities and government are absent, CSOs have an important role in reducing the suffering of people.” explains Maha Awadh, from Wogood Foundation for Human Security in Aden.

Attuned to local needs, civil society organisations work in a flexible way across humanitarian, development and rights work, and see their efforts in all of these areas as contributing to building peace in their communities. Some of the work being done by the organisations quoted in this article include initiatives such as supporting survivors of gender-based violence and reducing tensions caused by displaced people’s arrival in new communities.*

Where the conflict means that government responses to the coronavirus may be slow and patchy, CSOs have already started responding. Their ability to quickly adapt their work, understand how communities will engage with public health measures and to reach even marginalised and isolated groups will make them essential in preventing the worst possible outcomes from the spread of COVID-19 in Yemen – a lesson learned from the Ebola crisis about the critical role of community mobilisation in public health.

COVID-19 in Yemen: a potential catastrophe

“We want the message of Yemenis to reach the world, of the disaster that could happen in Yemen.” - Aref Al-Maqrami, Center for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, Taiz

With Yemen officially registering its first COVID-19 case on Friday 10th April, many Yemenis fear how an outbreak might play out in Yemen. “[Having no cases in Yemen]** is not something to be proud of. On the contrary, this makes us more fearful and worried about the effectiveness of existing health capacities to measure the scale of the pandemic in Yemen…”, explains Maha Awadh in Aden.

The CSOs we spoke to highlighted the overwhelming challenge of a healthcare infrastructure destroyed by war coping with breakout of COVID-19 in Yemen. They anxiously expressed their concern at the lack of proper quarantine centres, shortage of intensive care unit equipment, and scarcity of hygiene products that leave doctors unprotected.

“The set-up quarantine centres we saw are worse than you can imagine... the basic necessities for such quarantine centres are non-existent.” Ali Abdelhaq, Wogood, Aden

Some CSOs are trying to address the shortage of medical equipment with the limited resources they have. Taiz-based organisation Youth Without Borders is planning to survey the needs of medical facilities in their city and explore how they can secure necessary equipment with the help of community groups.

As well as a damaged healthcare system, CSOs are struggling with what they see as a lack of urgency on the part of authorities, political parties, and the wider community. Naji Ashal from the Marib Dam Foundation for Social Development highlighted the challenge in communicating about the threat: “About two weeks ago there was a youth initiative here in Marib, they produced and distributed around 2,000 masks to people. While some community members welcomed the initiative, others were questioning why hysteria and panic was being brought to them.”

While social distancing and personal hygiene care measures are a global recommendation to fight the pandemic, they will be difficult to carry out in Yemen. “The problem in Yemen when they tell us to stay at home and quarantine ourselves is […] we know people are not receiving salaries, 99% of Yemenis work on a daily allowance. It’s hard to ask them to stay at home while there is no sustenance they can rely on. If they stopped work today, tomorrow they won’t be able to secure food and water for their children,” says Noman.

Responses to COVID-19 in Yemen will need to consider these circumstances. Abdullah from Marib Girls Foundation noted international organisations operating in Yemen must “find a way of making hygiene products accessible to people, as they can no longer be found in markets.” He also stressed the need to pay attention to displaced communities, particularly in Marib where they are very densely populated.

Mobilising an urgent response

Civil society organisations have quickly adapted their priorities to protect their communities from the virus. They have been shrewd in using the limited resources they have from existing projects to plan creative responses and tap into the networks already established.

Social media illustration raising awareness on coronavirus by Youth Without Borders in Yemen. Translation: “Corona is not a joke. #Stop_the_rumours.”

One response currently planned by an organisation in Taiz - the National Organisation for Community - is to work with trusted and credible influential bodies and individuals to get community buy-in and cooperation. They are working on setting up electronic community centres grouping together existing community initiative groups, influential community leaders, and authority representatives, among others. The idea is to establish a network where monitoring of possible cases, awareness-raising information, and subsidised materials can be shared in a cohesive way on a district level.

Many organisations are incorporating online awareness campaigns about COVID-19 and prevention techniques. For example, the Youth Organization for Development & Democracy in Taiz adapted part of its plan for training civil society organisations on a peacebuilding handbook to channel accurate information about the virus. As Noman explains, “There’s a real gap in reaching accurate information [about the virus] to people. So much information is out there on social media channels, half of which is wrong. People are lost as to what exactly they should be doing.”

Their plan is to develop a mobile application that has useful COVID-19-related information including numbers of official deaths and doctors that can be contacted for help. Realising that not all Yemenis have access to internet, they are also working with a local radio station to widen the spread of accurate information.

Similarly, the Center for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Taiz has modified the focus of its work in schools to incorporate coronavirus training for teachers and students, with the help of local doctors. Improve Your Society Organisation in Taiz are in the early stages of establishing an educational platform on WhatsApp for people to access videos and other awareness material on the coronavirus, drawing on previous experiences in WhatsApp-based learning.

Improve Your Society have further adapted an ongoing project to spray public spaces, distribute masks and conduct door-to-door awareness raising. Both the Cultural and Developmental Students Forum in Marib and the Yemen Women Union in Hadramout have been able to tap into their communities’ volunteer groups and networks to implement similar distribution and awareness-raising campaigns.

Maha from Wogood raised an important gendered consideration in getting communities to positively respond to calls for precautionary individual and social measures. “We need to rely on and work with the well-informed and healthy people in households […] so that every person in the household understands and doesn’t put the people they’re living with at risk.” To Be Foundation in Aden is assessing the gendered impacts of the coronavirus as part of its planned activity to coordinate women-led campaigning efforts, to ensure COVID-19 responses take into account the differences in how COVID-19 and responses to it affect men and women.

A joint effort

“How can we [CSOs] face such an awful situation considering the government’s weak resources? How can we find alternative solutions [that we can implement] ourselves?” - Ali Abdelhaq, Wogood, Aden

One way forward identified by the CSOs in the response to COVID-19 focuses on learning about other responses inside and outside Yemen. As Alia from the Yemen Women Union in Hadramout explained, “We want to exchange information and experiences on the national level between governorates… so that we can learn from each other’s initiatives in our communities.” Ayoub al-Qasmi from Improve Your Society Organisation in Taiz also pressed for the need to “share experiences from other countries that have succeeded in better mitigating the risks of the virus. We just want experiences from around the world so that we can pass on these experiences to the community initiatives on the ground.”

The worried tone with which CSOs spoke to us demonstrated the burden of responsibility they feel amidst such an overwhelming threat. They emphasised the urgent need for information sharing and guidance from the UN and international non-governmental organisations, to allow for a coordinated response that compliments their work on the ground and prevents the duplication of efforts. This highlights a pre-existing disconnect between UN-led humanitarian coordination and the work of local organisations. The CSOs also urged for stronger direction from authorities to have a coherent response plan in place.

As Aref from the Center for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights stressed, “What concerns us now is how to activate our efforts as local organisations, with international organisations, with authorities and the government across Yemen to plan for countering this threat.”

 

Saferworld thanks the Forum for Students of Marib for Culture & Development, Marib Dam Foundation for Social Development, Marib Girls Foundation, Improve Your Society Organization, Youth Organization for Development & Democracy, Center for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, To Be Foundation for Rights and Freedoms, Wogood Foundation for Human Security, Yemen Center for Human rights Studies, Yemen Women Union, National Organisation for Community Development, Youth Without Borders, and Alf Ba Civilisation and Coexistence for sharing their perspectives that informed this piece.  

Read more about the work of civil society groups mentioned in this article here.

** Since the time of writing, Yemen registered its first official coronavirus case on the 10 April 2020.

Photo: Volunteer hands out face masks to a family in Yemen.