Youth groups like "Taiz Against Corona" are playing an important role in raising awareness and mobilizing public support to prevent the spread of COVID-19
Amid government dysfunction, youth play critical role in coronavirus prevention efforts
As the number of coronavirus cases and associated deaths continue to rapidly mount around the world, Yemen remains one of very few countries that has yet to report a single case of the disease, also known as COVID-19. Fearing the virus would prove catastrophic to Yemen’s war-battered population, governmental authorities have taken a number of unprecedented preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of its spread throughout the country, including suspending flights, limiting border traffic, and closing schools.
However, governmental efforts to address the coronavirus threat suffer from a near complete absence of coordination between the parties fighting in the country’s protracted war. Moreover, as has long been the case in Yemen, local authorities lack the capacity to effectively enforce measures announced by the central government.
For example, in response to the pandemic Yemen’s Ministry of Endowments and Guidance banned prayer in mosques and public gatherings for Friday prayer. However, this didn’t stop hundreds of worshippers in the central Yemeni governorate of Taiz from gathering last Friday to pray in the courtyard of one of Taiz city’s historic mosques. The local ministry official responsible for enforcing the measure was reprimanded, but the incident – which sparked debate online – made it clear that putting measures into effect on the ground requires greater public understanding and acceptance.
In this regard, Yemeni youth activists have been playing a key role in mobilizing public support for preventative measures to address coronavirus, and acting as a bridge between the local authority and the general public. One of the youth-led initiatives that recently emerged in Taiz, which has long been one of the epicenters of the conflict, is a campaign called “Taiz Against Corona.” Since launching a Facebook group in mid-March, the initiative has quickly amassed over 8,000 members online.
“All of them have the responsibility to respond against coronavirus,” Maha Awn, a young activist in Taiz who co-founded the initiative, said of her youth peers. “Taiz, the city that was considered Yemen's cultural capital, is facing an extreme crisis,” she told Almasdar Online.
According to Maha, the team behind the Taiz Against Corona campaign is working on raising awareness in society about health measures to prevent the spread of disease, mobilizing public support, coordinating efforts with the local authority and local health office and networking between the various youth groups and NGOs in Taiz.
The team designed an online registration form for volunteers with the aim of preparing a database of young people in Taiz who have a variety of skills and expertise to help contribute to prevention efforts and cooperate with the local authorities, the health office and local organizations. In a matter of days, over 1,000 people from various districts of the governorate signed up to volunteer their time.
As part of the community-oriented strategy, the campaign is forming field teams to educate locals, especially in high-risk locations like displaced persons camps, slums and health clinics on the need to adhere to preventative measures to tackle the pandemic. The team, which is also seeking to provide free medical consultations, organized a workshop under the banner, “The Campaign for Taiz Against Corona,” in cooperation with the local authority and the health office.
The response to their efforts, Maha explained, have been mixed: part of society is deeply concerned about the disease and very supportive of the group’s work. “The other part doesn’t feel responsible, they continue their lives normally,” she said, making it clear that community-based awareness raising must be a core part of the prevention efforts.
“The health status here is disastrous. Humanitarian aid, which is supposed to flow freely, is being prevented from reaching the people of Taiz, leading to grave shortages of medicines and other supplies,” she explained. “Medical services have been caught up in the violence and the health services have largely collapsed. (This) crippled health system, combined with increasingly harsh living conditions, has prompted a decline in people's health.”
The fighting between the Houthis and government forces continues to rage on, with the frontline cutting through the governorate and blocking all but one road into Taiz city. And while staying home will help protect from the spread of coronavirus, it is impossible to avoid the impact of the war: an artillery shell fired by the Houthis struck a civilian home in Taiz city on Friday, killing a civilian and injuring three of his family members.
More broadly, Yemen as a whole is considered to be suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis on earth: 80 percent of Yemenis are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance and protection, while one-third of the population is a step away from famine. “The World Health Organization (WHO) and health partners have documented 142 attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities across Yemen since the beginning of the war in 2015,” the United Nations said this month, adding that less than 50 percent of all health facilities are functioning at capacity.
Several other initiatives aimed at raising awareness for proper health practices and preventing the spread of coronavirus have been launched in governorates around Yemen, with youth taking a lead role. In the interim capital of Aden, the “Adeni Youth for Confronting Corona” campaign was launched; in Hadhramawt, youth launched an initiative called “Khalik Bil Bait” – meaning stay home – to urge citizens to remain home and for the local authorities to act quickly and efficiently; and activists in Marib governorate have launched an effort to support the local authority with public awareness campaigns.
“The probability that in-country infections occur is high,” warns a risk report on coronavirus in Yemen released last week by the independent humanitarian monitor ACAPS. “Initially it is likely there will be no knowledge that COVID-19 is in Yemen due to the limited number of test kits and fear of reporting,” the report says, adding that the virus would likely spread “to many others” in a short time-frame before authorities determine it is present.
From Taiz, Maha pleaded for youth to put aside any differences in order to join together to confront the threat posed by the pandemic. “We suffered from the plague of war that took away our innocent young lives for five years,” she said. “We must stick together and confront this most deadly epidemic of our time.”