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Struggle to survive war and COVID-19 in Yemen

By Ibrahim Alwazir
Temporary camps for displaced people in Yemen, such as this one in Taiz governorate, typically lack basic services like water, sanitation, and schools. Humanitarian groups are struggling to provide food and other meet other needs in these areas. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Public health crisis and hunger a challenge in country facing ongoing conflict

Hakeem Asser is a volunteer public health promoter in a community of 45 families displaced by war and now facing the COVID-19 pandemic in Amran governorate, Yemen.

“You can’t imagine how desperate people are,” Asser says. “I can see them during the night, worried, sad, and totally unready to face another day.”

“I try to calm them down and tell them it will be alright,” he says.

The small, informal settlements where many displaced people in Yemen now live lack basic services such as clean water, safe sanitation, electricity, and schools. Oxfam and others—from the UN to small local organizations—are doing all they can to help these families. Gaps in funding — for example, the US cut $73 million of its aid to Yemen in March 2020 — and ongoing challenges in accessing people in need put the humanitarian response in Yemen at risk.

Since the war in Yemen escalated in 2015, many areas have been on the brink of famine. The price of food has increased, and some basics are now difficult to find.

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Hakeem Asser stands near his tent in the settlement for displaced families, where he lives and also works with Oxfam to promote good health and sanitation, with a focus on how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Haafedh Almattabi / Oxfam

About 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 30 million are depending on humanitarian assistance for survival right now, and the war and financial crisis have closed about half of the health facilities in the country. Even those still functioning have severe shortages of equipment, medicine, and staff. Two-thirds of the population are hungry, and nearly 1.5 million families currently rely on food aid to survive, according to figures from the United Nations. Women and children are the worst affected: 1.4 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and more than 2 million children are suffering from moderate or severe malnutrition.

Tight budgets and hunger

Oxfam helped more than 2.5 million people in Yemen last year with clean water, hygiene items such as soap, latrines and repair of sewage systems, as well as cash and some assistance for small businesses. Recent reductions in funding have forced Oxfam (and most of the other humanitarian organizations, including the UN) to reduce some program activities in 2020.

“Oxfam was providing us with food baskets first and then cash for food, and we were happy and able to provide food and other necessities for our families,” Hakeem Asser, 25, says. “But since Oxfam was forced to scale back its support, we have lost a helping hand and people are devastated.” Oxfam continues to support the hygiene promotion and education work Asser and others are doing in Amran.

Now, with COVID-19 looming, Asser says even the ways families had adapted to find food are no longer options: “People used to go to markets to get food or to find daily-wage work, beg in the streets, or receive leftovers from restaurants, but now they have lost all that, too.”

Families are afraid to leave their communities to find food and meet other urgent needs, such as seeking medical care for COVID-19 or any other ailments.

“People here are aware of the virus and how it has been killing many people around the world,” Asser says. “They are terrified. They all think they could be infected, and they can’t afford to get sick or die.”

Raising awareness

Hakeem Asser’s job is to teach people how to avoid diseases such as cholera and COVID-19, the importance of good hygiene and handwashing to prevent disease, how to identify symptoms, and where to get treatment. He says his modest stipend from Oxfam helps him provide for his family and helps his community, but he still struggles. “The other day I couldn’t afford to buy milk for my child. He was malnourished two years ago and I took him to a hospital to receive medical care on credit. I couldn’t pay back until now, and I can’t follow up on his condition because of that.”

Asser shared that families have lost almost all means of accessing food. Before COVID-19 hit, this was already a major challenge. Even before the war, Yemen imported 90 percent of its food, so the financial crisis and restrictions on imports by the warring parties have already limited the food supply and made food very expensive.

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Hakeem Asser conducts a session with a family on what causes cholera, how to prevent it, identify its symptoms, and how it can be treated. Haafedh Almattabi / Oxfam

Further effects from COVID-19 could be disastrous: Oxfam is estimating that globally between 6,000 and 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic before the end of the year — perhaps more than will die each day from the disease by that point. Countries in conflict like Yemen are among the most vulnerable.

Asser says he and his neighbors are doing the best they can to help each other. “When I have food, I share it with my neighbours, especially these days. We have bread, and when we bake I make sure I share it all. I can’t eat while others starve. This is what we do — we share what we have!”

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Contents typically included in a hygiene kit distrubuted by Oxfam to people displaced by conflict in Yemen include soap to help people wash their hands, a crucial means to avoid spreading diseases like cholera and COVID-19. Sandra Stowe/Oxfam America

Oxfam is urgently raising funds to help people in Yemen, and advocating for a nation-wide cease fire and inclusive peace talks. In the United States, Oxfam is urging the government to pause its suspension of assistance to northern Yemen and continuing to press for an end to arms sales to the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition, which is conducting air strikes in Yemen. In 2018 and 2019, Oxfam supporters in the US sent more than 26,000 emails and made 1,000 phone calls to members of Congress asking them to prevent further weapons sales.

“All I can say is that we are doing our best, and we are confident in God’s mercy,” Asser says. “This doesn’t mean we don’t need help. The most urgent thing right now is food. We also need water, hygiene kits, cash, and awareness campaigns. People are losing hope and with COVID-19 spreading now, I can only imagine it will get worse. No one wants that to happen.”

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