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The power of behaviour change in Yemen’s COVID-19 response

20 May 2020


Community volunteers help to raise awareness about COVID-19. Credit: UNICEF

Yemen — The war in Yemen is in its sixth year and the socioeconomic and security situation in the country continues to rapidly deteriorate, with abatement nowhere in sight.

Since the declaration of the first COVID-19 case in the country on 1 April 2020, the number of cases and deaths have continued to rapidly increase. While most countries have reached their respective peaks of the outbreak, Yemen’s epi curve is just beginning.

“Even before the war, Yemen’s health system was one of the most fragile in the Middle Eastern region, and Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Now that the threat of COVID-19 is here, my concern is that the resources will not be enough,” said Denise Assaf, the epidemiologist for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Yemen.

Changing behaviours saves lives

The UN is doing all it can to respond to the pandemic, such as by forming the Humanitarian Task Force in Yemen, which leverages the collective might of multiple partners and agencies, towards support that is robust and comprehensive. The response comprises two very important streams –clinical and public health measures – in which community engagement and awareness-raising play a huge role.

“In the absence of ample clinical resources, we must focus on prevention measures, and it is always a challenge, in any disease outbreak, to get people to change their behaviours. In the case of COVID-19, behaviour change, if done systematically, can and will save lives,” said Ms. Assaf.

Yemen is a very close-knit society, with close and extended families living together in one home, sharing everything from space and food to personal items. The concept of “physical distancing” is foreign to most Yemenis, and its adoption is even more unlikely.

“As individuals, we all bear the responsibility to not spread the virus. The more we go out, mix and socialize, the higher our chances of catching COVID-19 and bringing it home,” said Dr. Phil Smith, COVID-19 Incident Manager with WHO. “Think of it this way: When you restrict your movements or stay at home, you are protecting your family from this virus, and the potential death it can cause,” he added.

Local volunteers speak to mothers in villages about COVID-19. Credit: UNICEF

Ensuring that communities are aware and prepared

The UN is actively prioritizing social and behaviour change communications and interventions in the hope that people will modify deep-seated behaviours that will, in turn, save their lives. 

Community engagement and awareness-raising activities in Yemen are currently led by UNICEF together with WHO, which have trained more than 10,000 community volunteers as well as health-care workers on what COVID-19 is, how it is transmitted and, more importantly, how community members can protect themselves.

Children are being taught how to properly wash their hands. Credit: UNICEF

In conjunction with key influencers, ministries, teachers, students, imams, women’s groups and community volunteers, communication materials have been distributed across the country. These efforts have been supported by the airing of public service announcements as well as prevention and protective messages on various social media platforms.

People are receiving vital information on the coronavirus and reporting suspected cases through the hotlines for help. The national surveillance system is playing a part in the early detection of and response to COVID-19 and, coupled with awareness-raising and behaviour change measures, responders hope they will help to stop the spread or prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

Religious influencers raise awareness about COVID-19 at a female-only mosque. Credit: UNICEF

“I see that people are reacting positively to the messages and modifying their behaviours. I see people washing their hands with soap more frequently, wearing masks when they are outside their homes, and engaging more on the messages through radio phone-in programmes and through social media,” said Nana Garbrah-Aidoo, the UNICEF Chief of Communication for Development in Yemen. 

“We are doing well, but more still needs to be done. We have to reach a point where people understand that everyone and anyone can be infected by COVID-19. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between who you are, where you live, come from or work. Yemenis have to take action to protect their families and loved ones,” she added.