Returning to Yemen

Rebekah Rice, Medair’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Advisor for Medair’s Yemen programme, shares her reflections while travelling back into Yemen during the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic

In Yemen Medair teams travel up to four hours to reach communities with health, nutrition, and water, hygiene and sanitation services. 

Today I was one of the first international staff members to fly back into Yemen on a UN chartered flight, since borders closed to incoming passengers eight weeks ago. Getting back in was a mammoth task of negotiations for entry requirements, visas, flight bookings, and then some more negotiations. I never assumed I would make it in until I was past immigration at Aden airport. Now working inside Yemen can begin again, and for that I am glad. Our staff will feel more supported, and being in the country means I’ll have a greater understanding of the current context, and be able to respond in a better way. I’ll be able to talk on a mobile phone, rather than over the internet. I’m already so much more motivated – despite working from my bedroom. Once my 14-day quarantine is over, I’ll also be able to have social-distancing meetings with our staff – possibly. Who knows how things will change in two weeks? 

Going back into Yemen right now is probably the riskiest thing I have done – simply because of Covid-19. In a country where Covid-19 cases are so underreported and health systems so fragile, if anyone contracts Covid-19 and requires serious medical treatment, chances of survival are slim. We know people are dying with Covid-19 symptoms, but they have not been confirmed as Covid-19 deaths due to a lack of testing in Yemen. It’s unclear why Covid-19 seems underreported, but it’s a likely mixture of the health system being overwhelmed and the authorities lacking capacity to respond. There is also an outbreak of Dengue Fever and the Chikungunya Virus. It doesn’t help determine what people are dying from when testing isn’t available for these two diseases either. Recently Yemen reported access to just 520 intensive care units beds and less than 200 ventilators in the whole country, despite many more on backorder. It really doesn’t bare thinking about what the next few months hold for Yemen. 

For Yemen, it isn’t just a pandemic looming. There is still a civil war going on, escalating again. Terrible flooding hit Aden a few weeks ago, leaving people homeless and IDP camps swamped in foul water. Cholera season is now upon us. The Yemeni people seem to have no respite.  

Rebekah meets with a mother and young child in a clinic in Yemen 

Humanitarian work can’t stop in Yemen because of Covid-19. If it does, people will die of hunger due to no food distributions, die of cholera due to a lack of safe water, children will die of malnutrition due to no therapeutic feeding and the people we employ won’t have jobs. We have to weigh these repercussions up with ensuring our staff are ‘safe’ as they work;safe’ working in communities where we don’t know how far Covid-19 has spread. Yet, we want to ensure communities have access to safe water and sanitation, are taught about the importance of washing their hands and people have access to basic health care. These agonising decisions weigh heavily on my heart. How do we make such decisions? What is the right thing to do in a culture where social-distancing is nearly impossible and where war has forced much of the population into day-to-day survival?  

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.  

Medair’s work in Yemen is supported by the Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Swiss Solidarity and generous private donors.