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Coronavirus in Ethiopia: Is the worst yet to come?

COVID-19 in Africa

Coronavirus in Ethiopia: Is the worst yet to come?

For a country with a population in excess of 100m, both infection and death rates from coronavirus have been remarkably low in Ethiopia. The government was quick to clamp down on transmission routes, but loss of income and jobs could create a febrile political atmosphere. James Jeffrey reports

Ethiopia reported its first Covid-19 coronavirus case on 13 March. The infected individual was later identified as a Japanese citizen. Ten days later the Ethiopian government announced the closure of the country’s land borders. By 8 April, the government declared a five-month State of Emergency (SOE) to help limit the spread of the virus.

Despite such dramatic actions – or perhaps partly because of them – so far, like most of the rest of Africa, Ethiopia is faring reasonably well, all things considered.

Of the 352 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ethiopia – as at 19 May  – there have been 116 recoveries and five deaths. The positive-test rate remains below 1% – an enviable statistic compared to many countries: in the US at the start of April that rate reached 21% – and there are no reports of surges.

But it is estimated that the country’s number of Covid-19 cases will likely peak in June or July, leaving plenty of time for the situation to change dramatically.

Ethiopia has just one doctor for every 10,000 people, according to the World Bank – half the ratio for neighbouring Kenya, four times less than that for Nigeria and nine times less than that for South Africa.

There are already increasing cases of community spread, with officials warning that complacency could undermine containment. As a result, despite current low numbers, the fear remains that Ethiopia’s weak health infrastructure could easily become overwhelmed by a major surge in cases.

“I’m sceptical of the Ethiopia numbers and the very short briefings given every day by the Ministry of Health,” says Elias Gebreselassie, a freelance journalist based in the capital Addis Ababa.

“Many of us fear the worst of Ethiopia’s coronavirus situation is yet to come, given the government’s and the public’s half-hearted gestures seemingly slowly dying out. The mood of many people is strangely semi-fatalistic, with lacklustre adherence to private and public health measures,” he adds.

But while such scepticism of governmental transparency has a fair grounding given Ethiopia’s past, there is an argument that it may not be warranted in the case of Covid-19. 

“In a society like ours there’s simply no way this could be kept secret,” Berhanu Nega, an Ethiopian opposition leader, recently told the media.

Swift action by government

Gebreselassie grants that the government has been swift to act in Addis Ababa, reportedly detaining 1,305 people for not wearing masks when they should have been.

The SOE gives the government and security forces increased power to impose limitations. In addition to the mandatory wearing of face masks in certain situations, other measures being enforced range from the banning of handshakes and all meetings of four of more people, to the closure of schools, bars, cinemas, theatres and nightclubs.

Addis Ababa Bole International Airport and other international ports of arrival have put in place additional measures to screen passengers arriving, departing or transiting through Ethiopia, such as temperature measurements and checks on recent travel to affected areas. All passengers arriving in the country are now subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine in hotels designated by local authorities.

But coordinating effective Covid-19-related counter-measures around the entire country, with a population in excess of 100m, is another matter.

“People are concerned, and at the same time much of the public appears to be downplaying the seriousness of the disease, which is making the days ahead both scary and problematic,” says Elias Meseret, another Addis Ababa-based journalist.

Ethiopia is a deeply religious country and the world’s second-oldest practitioner of Christianity after Armenia. As a result, there are reports that many Ethiopians assume God will protect them from the disease, an outlook susceptible to confirmation bias due to the small number of local cases so
far.

For now, most of Covid-19’s impact in Ethiopia is unrelated to public health. Civil society and the economy have borne the brunt of its fallout thus far.

After Covid-19 arrived in Ethiopia, there were reports of abusive behaviour towards foreigners – with foreigners blamed for bringing the virus into the country – including a small number of cases of assault. The situation led to the Ethiopian government having to issue a stark warning to citizens to refrain from attacking foreigners.

Ethiopia’s important flower export industry has been detrimentally affected. After Europe was hit with the coronavirus, the demand for flowers plummeted and the price dropped by more than 80%. A total of 150,000 employees in this industry are also at the risk of losing their jobs.

Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, reports that it’s working at only 10% of its capacity, and has reported a loss of $550m in the months of January to April 2020. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that Covid-19 will shave 2.9% off Ethiopia’s economic growth for the fiscal year 2020.

Mitigating economic fallout

The Ethiopian government has taken actions to try mitigating the economic fallout for ordinary Ethiopians. Landlords have been banned from evicting or increasing rents for their private tenants during the SOE.

All commercial and private employers are prohibited from reducing their workforces or prematurely terminating employment contracts.

Ethiopia is receiving outside assistance also. This has included the diaspora coming to the fore, with Ethiopian doctors based in places harder hit by the virus, like the US, offering hard-earned advice and guidance remotely.

The US government has announced a $37m assistance package to bolster case management, infection prevention and control, laboratory strengthening, public health screening, and communications and media campaigns.

“As we have done time and time again, the United States will continue to support others during their time of greatest need,” US ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor said at the start of May. “Both during and after this crisis, we will remain steadfastly alongside our Ethiopian friends and partners to help build a brighter future for all Ethiopians.”

The political implications of Covid-19 remain to be seen, though they are already playing out. The highly anticipated general election, set to be held on 29 August 2020, has been postponed, with the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia temporarily ceasing all activities related to it.

The election is regarded as an important test of the reformist agenda of Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, as he seeks to break away from the country’s past authoritarian tendencies. Previous elections in Ethiopia have been marred by allegations of rigging and intimidation.

The International Crisis Group’s Ethiopia analyst, William Davison, has told the media that Abiy’s ruling party should use the extra time to discuss “critical topics” – including how to make the elections free and fair – with opposition parties. “Although the circumstances are deeply worrying, the delay does offer an opportunity to reset Ethiopia’s troubled transition,” Davison says.

Ethiopia’s fault lines were already looking more precarious before Covid-19 arrived, with Abiy increasingly struggling to position himself as a unity candidate whose reforms could replace repression as the necessary glue holding Ethiopia’s often fractious federal regions together.

Now, more than 26m Ethiopian students are affected by school closures due to the coronavirus, according to UNICEF. Ethiopia can ill-afford more disgruntled youths swelling its unemployed numbers, further adding to the government and country’s challenges.

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