Coronavirus: MSF, KSRelief aiding Yemen’s COVID-19 efforts despite Houthi challenges

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Global aid groups like Doctors without Borders (MSF) and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief) are pushing forward with efforts to help Yemen combat the coronavirus pandemic despite challenges posed by the Houthi militia.

Efforts from the KSRelief included efforts to support the Yemeni government with medical assistance with $3.5 million in March, including medications and supplies to help the country face the coronavirus pandemic.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme earlier last week on June 2 sent a ship, along with assistance from the Arab Coalition, from Saudi Arabia’s port of Jeddah to Yemen’s Hodeidah Port carrying much needed medical equipment and food assistance to Yemen.

Governments like Saudi Arabia’s said it would be contributing $500 million to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen in 2020, as well as an additional $25 million to help combat the pandemic.

But despite the many efforts to assist Yemen in its fight against coronavirus, challenges persist with the Houthi militias in the war-torn country in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, sources confirmed that the Houthi militias forcibly stormed and closed down the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the capital Sanaa.

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Speaking to Al Arabiya, Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik said the Houthi militants’ ignorant handling of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has led to a real catastrophe in Sanaa, adding that residents in the capital fear disclosing their infections.

Unlike other epidemics in Yemen, MSF said COVID-19 presented an unprecedented challenge in the country due to the constraints in the movement of its staff as well as the shortage in the global supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).

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To counter the challenges, MSF said it has worked closely with local suppliers to source locally-available materials in order to make non-medical protection gears like face masks and face shields.

“When COVID-19 started to spread around the world, we started brainstorming ideas to find ways to protect our staff and patients when and if the virus made an eventual appearance in the country,” said Armand Dirks, MSF project coordinator in Taiz City.

“There was a limited chance of MSF being able to get PPE inside Yemen, because of global shortages and constraints on the movement of supplies worldwide. Our discussions resulted in the production of non-medical protection material in Taiz City through local suppliers, which we could donate to the hospitals we support when needed.”

The situation in Yemen with coronavirus remains dire, with the Iran-backed Houthi militants so far only confirming four cases as a result of coronavirus, including one fatality. An AFP tally, however, placed the figures at 423 cases of infections and 96 deaths as of Thursday.

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The problem with coronavirus is so difficult that the heads of 17 organizations representing the international humanitarian community issued a statement in late May, saying “we are running out of time” to keep operations in the war-torn country functioning through the end of the year. In total, they estimated the war-torn country needs $2.41 billion to fight COVID-19 spread in Yemen.

But for agencies like MSF, there is an added problem of ensuring their own staff members are protected first.

“This is the first time we have been faced with such a situation, as we have always had enough PPE in our projects before,” said Annie Marie Morales, MSF medical team leader in Marib.

“I think we took it for granted but now we realize their importance. It’s a difficult situation and we are trying to adapt as events unfold rapidly. There is local transmission [of COVID-19] happening in the country at present, which risks having to shut down our activities because the safety of our staff and the patients we serve is of the utmost importance.”