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Unicef steps in to pay salaries of Yemeni medics battling cholera

Agency is borrowing the money from an emergency fund to provide medical workers with about 70 per cent of what they ordinarily would be paid

Image Credit: AFP
A doctor checks a child suspected of being infected with cholera at a makeshift hospital in Sana’a.
Gulf News

New York: Desperate to halt the cholera crisis afflicting Yemen, Unicef has taken the unusual step of paying the country’s doctors and nurses, who have not received salaries in months.

The regional director for Unicef, Geert Cappelaere, said that Yemen’s health workers are crucial to the effort to combat cholera and that they should not be expected to work for free.

Their normal pay has been disrupted by the civil war that has raged since March 2015 between the Saudi-backed government and the country’s Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels and their allies.

Al Houthis took over the government in 2014 and Saudi Arabia has stepped in, leading an Arab coalition, to restore the legitimate president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power.

Cappelaere said Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency, started paying the health workers about four weeks ago. The agency is borrowing the money from an emergency fund to provide medical workers with about 70 per cent of what they ordinarily would be paid. The money, which he described as daily stipends, has already amounted to millions of dollars.

“It’s not a common practice at all,” Cappelaere said in an interview.

“That’s also a practice I would not want to see sustained.”

Still, Cappelaere said it was necessary because, “We’re not going to let kids die.”

He described the cholera crisis ravaging Yemen as “really a massive, massive outbreak” the magnitude of which the country, the poorest in the Middle East, has never experienced.

Cholera, a bacterial disease spread by contaminated water, can cause fatal dehydration if left untreated.

Half of the country’s health facilities have been destroyed or closed because of the war, which has left roughly 10,000 people dead and millions displaced.

The cholera crisis, Cappelaere said, “just comes on top of what already was an incredibly daunting situation.”

Nearly 1,000 Yemenis have died from cholera since the outbreak began in April, half of them women and children, UN officials have said.

More than 130,000 cases have been reported, and Cappelaere and others predicted that the total could rise to 300,000 in coming weeks.

Cappelaere said he had spoken with representatives of the opposing sides in Yemen about paying the health workers, and though both sides “recognised that a solution needs to be found,” he said they agreed on little else.

“What I’ve said to both sides is, ‘Sorry but you still seem to have money to fight. If you have money to fight, you should be able to pay your doctors, you should be able to pay your nurses,’” Cappelaere said.

He spoke against the backdrop of an increasingly bleak outlook for funding Yemen’s humanitarian emergencies, including the prospect of a steep drop in UN aid from the Trump administration.

Yemen also is facing a famine and a growing population of young children with severe malnutrition and stunted growth.

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said on Thursday that the $2.1 billion humanitarian response plan for 2017 was only 29-per cent funded.

“What is heartbreaking in Yemen is that humanity is losing out to the politics,” McGoldrick said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, according to AFP.