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Yemen Health Cluster: ‘We need to respond to all health needs, not just COVID-19’

15 May 2020


Internally displaced people line up to register for food assistance. Credit: Danish Refugee Council

Yemen — On a daily basis as a result of their country’s five-year conflict, the people of Yemen live through intense firefights, struggle with a myriad of communicable diseases, and battle chronic illnesses and malnutrition. Now, however, they are having to face an invisible threat that no one was prepared for, and least of all Yemen: COVID-19.

The importance of a ‘continuum of care’

“We know that COVID-19 is a very real and dangerous threat. However, I am more concerned about upholding the ‘continuum of care’ in Yemen. If we focus on this virus alone, we leave behind the rest of the Yemenis suffering from other illnesses, and we cannot afford to do that,” said Dr. Muhammad Fawad Khan, Health Cluster Coordinator in Yemen.

Health Clusters are part of the UN emergency response system and help to relieve suffering and save lives in humanitarian emergencies. The clusters respond to health issues and needs alongside other UN agencies and partners from both local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The concern that COVID-19 will ravage communities is palpable and, at 23 per cent, the case fatality rate in Yemen is alarmingly high. However, there are thousands of people in the country suffering from non-COVID-19 diseases, who are at risk of being de-prioritized due to attention being diverted to the coronavirus.

Yemenis practice social distancing while in line to receive food assistance in Aden. Credit: Danish Refugee Council

 Level of exposure and surveillance are crucial

More than 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently live in informal and spontaneous sites across Yemen. These populations are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 epidemic and other communicable diseases due to overcrowding, poor access to safe water and sanitation, and limited access to health services. In the absence of control measures, these sites will likely experience very high occurrence and mortality rates.

“This would translate into an unprecedented number of patients requiring intensive care over a very short period of time, which they will not receive,” said Winnie Mbusya, Manager of the Yemen Displacement Response Consortium.

Led by the Danish Refugee Council, the consortium consists of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and agencies that work to help those in need in Yemen. The consortium has conducted awareness activities and installed sanitation stations across 182 displacement sites in the country. The group has also provided much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line health-care workers, and is piloting community shielding initiatives to protect vulnerable individuals in IDP sites. 

Ensuring disinfection protocols as citizens enter a food distribution point. Credit: Danish Refugee Council

But the reality of the impending magnitude and scope of COVID-19 has begun to weigh on front-line responders and humanitarians. They also worry about their own safety, knowing that if they get sick, they will no longer be able to help or treat those in need.

“We need to stay and deliver, but we also have to be realistic. To effectively support communities, we need to also be able to protect ourselves, to understand the risks we are exposed to. There is a lack of access to health services for front-line workers and in testing capacity and surveillance within Yemen. We all need to work together to improve this,” said Ms. Mbusya.

The long and tough road ahead

As the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Yemen continue to rise, the UN and its partners are working to ensure that everyone is doing their part in response to the pandemic. But there is no mistaking that the road ahead will be long and rough.

Food aid lined up for distribution to people. Credit: Danish Refugee Council

“Stay at home, to protect the fragile health infrastructure and save lives. If you are leaving your home to work, shop or exercise, you should take all possible measures to stay safe and protect yourself, including maintaining social distancing, washing your hands regularly and not touching your face,” said Dr. Khan.

In the absence of resources, the only way out is through, and the only way through is together.