A doctor sitting at a desk in a health center in Yemen.

Dr. Abdullelah works at a health center in Taiz, Yemen, which was closed due to the conflict but reopened with support from Save the Children. Photo Credit: GMU

Yemen: Coronavirus Outbreak Fanned by Soaring PPE and Oxygen Prices

The price of disposable facemasks has increased thirtyfold: Save the Children

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (June 3, 2020) – The cost of life saving items such as personal protective equipment, disposable masks, and oxygen cylinders is skyrocketing in Yemen, leaving millions of people exposed to the Coronavirus with little means to protect themselves or get treated against the rapid spread of the deadly virus in the country.

According to Save the Children teams on the ground, the price of disposable facemasks has increased from around $.02 (10 YR) per unit to $.50 (330 YR) - a thirtyfold increase across the country. A professional N95 mask currently costs as much as $8 (5,000 YR).

This makes the procurement of these life-saving items a challenge not only for individuals but also for aid organizations. In a country where salaries of health workers vary from $83 to $250 monthly, and the average income is around $120 per month, a disposable facemask is becoming a luxury item.

Many health facilities have reported staff not showing up to work due to lack of PPE, and some hospitals even closed down because of staffing shortages. This new financial challenge could push more health workers to stop working, and health facilities to turn patients away.

"There was panic in public hospitals that weren't ready to receive this [high] number of suspected COVID-19 cases, as well as dealing with different diseases, while not having proper PPE for health workers," said Dr. Masar Khalid, Save the Children’s Health and Nutrition Officer in Aden.

"I used to have a good income as a civil servant but I haven’t been paid for three years now. So, I had to work as day laborer in the local market to provide for my family,” said Yahia (43), who lives in Sanaa with his wife and four children.

“They ask us to stay home and avoid people but this is not possible for me. I still have to go every day to the busy market. I have one mask that I bought a few weeks ago and I wear it every day while my kids don’t wear [masks]. We have one [bar of] soap at home and we try to use it as wisely and necessary as possible; we cannot afford more expenses. For water, my children go twice a day to queue and fetch water from the only tank in our neighborhood."

The price of empty oxygen cylinders in Aden has also increased—from $50 pre-outbreak to $160 this week. Many community clinics and health facilities are unable to afford new cylinders. Nationwide, there are less than 12,000 cylinders available for a population of nearly 30 million. The cylinders in use need to be filled regularly, with the refilling cost having doubled from $1.60 (1,000 YR) to $2.40-3.30 (1,500 to 2,000 YR).

The oxygen re-filling pump in one of the two hospitals in Aden exploded recently, as it needed maintenance, straining this vital resource even further. According to the U.N., 42 patients who were at the hospital when the explosion occurred require oxygen to stay alive. In general, the hospital needs between 50-60 oxygen cylinders a day. Though it is now operational again, any further disruption could be life threatening to several patients.

“Masks were already in short supply in most parts of Yemen, despite massive efforts from the United Nations agencies to cover the gaps as soon as possible,” said Xavier Joubert, Save the Children country director. “With prices shooting up, it becomes impossible for many Yemenis to buy them: civilians can’t afford them and aid organizations have a hard time procuring them. If the simplest, most basic prevention tool that is so urgently needed in crowded markets and urban areas and that can save lives is not available, there’s no telling to how fast and far the virus can spread.”

Since border closures have been tightened in Yemen to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, quarantine measures required at seaports have reduced humanitarian cargo by two-thirds at key points of entry. For Yemen, this means personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as medical supplies cannot be delivered in a timely manner.

Save the Children is calling on authorities in Yemen to accelerate custom clearance for PPE and medical supplies, as well as staff rotation into the country. The international humanitarian organization also calls on donors to disburse urgently the $1.35 billion in aid that was promised at the June 2 international pledging conference. However, access and money won’t have the needed impact if the conflict continues, and calls to abide by a ceasefire go unanswered by warring parties.

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