(Bloomberg) -- Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed struck a deal with billionaire Jack Ma to distribute medical supplies across Africa and wrote an impassioned plea in the Financial Times for international aid to fight the coronavirus on the continent. Yet at home, he’s moved slowly.
The 43-year-old winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace prize postponed general elections due in August, closed schools and just a week ago declared a state of emergency. But crucially he has kept Ethiopia’s main airport open and allowed the national carrier to maintain flights, leaving the country vulnerable to new infections. Testing in Africa’s second-most populous nation has been paltry.
The contradiction between Abiy’s public concern about the pandemic and his reluctance to impose tight restrictions reveals deep-rooted fears about derailing his efforts to modernize the economy, said a government official familiar with his thinking. Evidence to support his concern is widespread in the rest of the world, where tough lockdowns have provoked economic contractions and mass unemployment.
“I don’t think this pandemic could have come at any worse time than this,” State Minister for Finance Eyob Tekalign Tolina said last week. “We cannot afford to leave a lasting shock on the economy because we have too much to lose.”
Ethiopia has averaged annual economic growth of 10% for the past decade, the fastest on the continent. Much of that was driven by the expansion of Ethiopian Airlines and billions of dollars in industrial investment by China, its most important ally. Africa’s biggest carrier, Ethiopian Airlines turned Addis Ababa airport into a hub for traffic from the region to the Middle East and Asia, with an annual flow of 12.2 million people. Many of those arrived from China, even when that country was at the height of its outbreak.
While the airline is running at about 10% of normal capacity today, it was still operating flights to and from Paris, China, the Middle East and across Africa on April 13, according to Flightradar24. Other regional powerhouses with large airlines -- South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria -- have grounded fleets and closed their borders. Most other African nations refuse travelers from countries with more than 200 coronavirus cases.
“Economically it shows how important maintaining the air links with China is,” said Ed Hobey-Hamsher, a senior Africa analyst at U.K.-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Abiy addressed the importance of the airline in his Financial Times article.
“Take Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s largest company, which accounts for 3% of national output and is a major source of hard currency,” he said. “It will be pushed to the brink as its business is upended by the pandemic.”
So far this year the airline says it has lost at least $550 million in revenue. Three of its employees have tested positive for the virus, out of a total of 85 cases nationwide.
“You have to recognize that you are importing cases if you have a busy airport,” said Atiya Mosam, a public health expert at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. “It really doesn’t help any population to let people move freely across their borders.”
The country of about 110 million people has also been slow to roll out screening programs, having tested about 5,000 people for the virus so far. Regular temperature checks of travelers started at Addis Ababa airport early March and even then only for passengers from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran.
In contrast, with 59 million people, South Africa has tested more than 80,000 and confirmed 2,415 infections.
Abiy’s administration has sought a middle road between taking some measures to slow the spread of the virus and tighter restrictions that would do serious economic damage, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report on Wednesday. Since rising to power two years ago, it has faced protests and ethnic violence.
“If the virus grabs hold and many Ethiopians find themselves without sufficient resources to care for their families, they could turn against authorities whom they perceive to be incompetent,” the group said. “Alternatively, if the state takes public health measures that make it impossible for people to provide for themselves, it could provoke a similar reaction.”
By now the measures the government has taken so far may be too little, too late.
Ethiopia will need an estimated $1.6 billion to fight the virus and its impact over the next three months, according to Eyob. This will go to health care and emergency needs including food.
With only 0.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people, “there is a serious lack of preparedness,” said William Attwell, head of sub-Saharan Africa research at DuckerFrontier, an advisory firm. “The government is woefully unprepared and is going to be really heavily reliant on donors when the numbers pick up.”
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