Transcribe your podcast
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That pot Kenny show on Newstalk. The global pandemic has restricted people in Ireland, taken some people out of work and of course, changed all of our lives, but what if you lived in a country that already has its trouble with disease and military conflict, famine, cholera, war, compounded now by the coronavirus pandemic?

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That's the situation in Yemen. I'm joined by Nurse Avril Patterson, who is the health coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross and is based in Yemen. Admiral, good morning and welcome.

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Good morning. Good morning. How are you?

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Very well. Now, there may be a delay on our connection, so we will live with that.

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Admiral, just to to put this in context before the global pandemic starts to unfold and it didn't touch Yemen for a little while into it. What was the situation on the ground for ordinary people?

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Yes, so as you as you mentioned at the beginning in Yemen, they've been facing conflict now for over five and a half years.

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So the conflict, of course, has the direct impact that you imagine with weapon wounded and with damage to vital infrastructure and facilities. But then it also has many, many indirect consequences, not least of all, a significant increase in poverty among the population. So prie covid, shall we say, 80 percent. So twenty four point one million people in Yemen needed assistance in some form or another from humanitarian organizations, which is massive.

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And then my my focus naturally is health. And when we look at people with access to basic basic health care, not fancy tertiary level hospitals, we are facing nineteen point seven million who don't have adequate access to basic health care. So when you add to that, as I mentioned, the the damage to vital infrastructure, this is water. This is electricity, this is sanitation, all the things that we take for granted and things that were highlighted even more significantly when we started to look at the impact of the pandemic or the potential impact of the pandemic in Ireland, you can tell people to wash their hands with soap and water in Yemen.

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Many of the population don't have soap, don't have water, struggle to feed themselves every day.

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So it really was another layer on top of many layers and a lot of of the Yemenis today they're saying, never mind covid, I'm worried about feeding my family. So they're still really at at at that level of trying to survive day to day. And it's just one additional nightmare, honestly, on top of an already catastrophic situation that is only getting worse.

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The situation in Ireland, they can say to us all, OK, go into lockdown, limit your movements.

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You can, you know, walk down the road for a half an hour a day, then get back in or you can go and do your shopping at the supermarket, wear a mask.

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For some people in Yemen, lockdown means starvation. So they go out and they go to work to earn money, to buy food, which has become much more expensive than before.

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Exactly, yes. And there hasn't been strict lockdown, occasional lockdowns in certain neighborhoods, but overall, this is not what's been put in place here by by the authorities, because if people don't go out, they don't eat. And I think the other thing with this whole virus that the whole world is still discovering is it's largely invisible. So we know that people who don't have symptoms can transmit the virus. But if you're there with your family and if you don't go out, you don't feed your family, you don't care about some invisible virus because you've got your immediate needs that day.

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And there's also not the same safety mechanisms that that we have in Ireland. You know, there's there's always some support for the most vulnerable. But in Yemen, the you know, you're in a situation where public sector workers have largely not received salaries since 2016. So, you know, you're dealing with all of of this underlying things and for the Yemenis and. Fair enough. You know, if you if you have to feed your family and you're not going to manage unless you go out to work that day, you're not going to stay at home, you're not going to follow these any kind of restrictions for something that is intangible and difficult to to get your head around.

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Now, we could talk about the war and it would take half an hour to explain why it happened. But it did happen based on bad leadership and, you know, the fragmentation of the country, Sunni versus Shia. So Saudi Arabia getting involved, a coalition involving the U.S., the U.K. and France also getting involved on the side of the the those who would subvert the government. So I don't want to go into the rights and wrongs of that. But is there any effective government at all at the moment in Yemen?

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Look, Yemen is there are there definitely authorities that are running the show, but they're quite fragmented in many parts of the country and and as you say, for us, it's not to to get into the issues around the conflict. Working for International Committee of Red Cross, our mandate is to support the victims of armed conflict and and other situations of violence. So what we ask ourselves are, what are the humanitarian consequences and how can we help? And part of that help is that we try to talk to all concerned parties to the conflict.

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So wherever we are, we want to know who is in charge, who is running things, who can we dialogue with to try to implement our activities and to try to help the people.

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So those are really are our main our main focus in everything. Suffice to say that if we look at something like the health system, it has been spoken of as being largely collapsed for several years now. It is definitely being propped up by a number of humanitarian organizations. But we are not the answer. The answer is it is, you know, a solution to the to the conflict. It's a political solution. And it's not something that that we can get into.

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But we we just try to plug the gaps and to stretch our resources and support in whatever way we can. So, yes, there are definitely people in charge. There's also a very strong tribal element throughout Yemen. So for us, it's very important to try to know who do we need to talk to to try to do what we want to do to help the population. And it is complicated, to say the least. But yes, that's what we try to do.

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Complicated, but obviously you can't believe it's impossible because you wouldn't be there if if it was a totally hopeless case. So how are you coping in the International Red Cross? What can you do? How many people are you helping? Well, for for health, we have we work only with the Ministry of Public Health and Population, which is kind of two ministries there. There's different ones in the south, in Aden than than in Sana'a. But we work closely with them and we support primary health care centers or clinics across the country, around 28 facilities.

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We also have two significant hospital projects at the minute. We're intervening in the South with a new hopefully opening soon center to treat moderate cases of the coronavirus, which is obviously a key element. We support also first aid training across the country and we have physical rehabilitation program mainly for prosthetics and orthotics. So amputees typically, but we're not only in health, we have big water projects around the country. We do rehabilitation and construction linked to health facilities. We have protection activities in places of detention where we visit people.

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We try to restore family links of those who've maybe been disconnected from their families.

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We have a big program for for food support, but also livelihoods linked to vaccination of animals. So we're very operational in Yemen. We're managing to do a lot. And I think the secret is really patients trying to also understand and to come come at it from a partnership perspective, because we're not here to replace whoever is is in charge.

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We're here to try to work with them. And whatever we do, we hope to leave behind something that is sustainable. So, yes, lots of lots of activities ongoing, but as I say, never, really never enough.

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And and if you throw a stone in Yemen, you find needs. Needs are absolutely everywhere. So it's about trying to see where we can have the biggest impact for the most people and and also sometimes in areas where other actors are not easily able to work.

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Well, Avril, I appreciate you talking to us. I mean, it's incredible work that you're doing in a war zone we must not forget. And your own life story is very interesting. So next time you're back on this island, we love to talk to you in great detail about your life and the life choices you've made. You've been in so many difficult situations. But for the moment, people should not be too insular in their own concerns about local covid-19 do not forget about Yemen and the great work of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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Avril Patterson, thank you very much for joining us.