Pandemic must be back on the list of policy priorities, as public fatigue and political will dwindle in Ethiopia

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Addis ZeybeJanuary 22, 2021
Pandemic must be back on the list of policy priorities, as public fatigue and political will dwindle in Ethiopia

It has now been 314 days since the first case of the coronavirus pandemic was confirmed in Ethiopia. Since then the pandemic has infected 132,034 Ethiopians of which 2,044 have succumbed to it. On the other hand around 117,353 patients have recovered from the pandemic, according to the WHO and the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. As encouraging as these numbers may seem compared to developed countries, it is also true that Ethiopia only tested  a little over one percent of its entire population making the above figures immensely misleading in terms of the response given by the Ethiopian authorities and public. Out of the estimated 110 million inhabitants of the country, only 1,888,637 laboratory tests have been administered, according to the twitter pages of the Ministry of Health and its current head Lia Tadesse (MD). 

Furthermore, especially in recent times, seemingly more pressing matters such as the back and forth and eventually materialized conflict in the northern part of the country, the border clashes with neighbouring countries, the issue of the GERD and other sporadic concerns have dominated public discourse in both mainstream and social media outlets, forcing the pandemic to the backseat of government and public priorities. Addis Zeybe concurs that in the past few months Ethiopia has been experiencing a wide array of challenges with notable humanitarian crises following the conflict in Tigray, the killings in places like Metekel as well as natural disasters such as the desert locust and floodings in select regions  of the country stretching the government’s capacity as well as affecting the public at large. 

However, in the following brief editorial, Addis Zeybe strongly argues that the pandemic is far from being a distant concern which in turn requires ramping up public adherence to precautionary measures prescribed by proper authorities. Especially, following reports of a new strain of the pandemic being confirmed and recently reaching neighbouring country Kenya, the lack of preparedness from the government and adherence by the public could cost Ethiopia an immense amount of loss in terms of human and socio-economic costs of the pandemic. Furthermore, Addis Zeybe also argues that it is important to write this editorial because of the lack of attention to the pandemic in recent times and the impending events such as the election threatening to assist the spread of the pandemic. 

In a report published by the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, the health organization clearly identified public fatigue as one of the potential risk factors contributing to the spread of the pandemic. In the report, public fatigue was defined as the demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions. Another important determinant of the pandemic is political will of governments to make the health crisis one of the top priorities in its mainstream policy as well as the actions of public officials setting the temperament regarding to what extent such measures are observed by the public. This is not an exhaustive list. However, in the interest of brevity Addis Zeybe has chosen the above two important determinants in order to demonstrate the message of the following editorial. 

Well, the first question would be, is there public fatigue in the contemporary Ethiopian public when it comes to the pandemic and the steps necessary to combat it. According to Addis Zeybe, the answer is an astounding YES. It has now become more and more common to see the lack of observing precautionary measures in public and crowded spaces. While the transportation restrictions and mandatory mask wearing rules in public spaces had assisted the country in the first five months of the pandemic era, it is increasingly common to see overcrowded taxis and buses from day to day. As opposed to half capacity rules implemented as a result of the State of Emergency proclamation (expired in September 2020), it is now common to see taxis and “lonchins” (local name for privately owned bus service providers in Ethiopia) overflowing with people, at times without wearing masks and applying disinfectants. Mask wearing in general and proper mask wearing in particular have also been more common with country level and company or institution specific regulations being the driving cause for people to wear masks rather than the need and commitment to halt the spread and impact of the pandemic. It is more common to see individuals make dangerous claims about the current status of the pandemic. While it requires research to understand why the public has endured fatigue towards the pandemic and its human and socio-economic as well as and political costs, it is immensely difficult to deny the increasing neglect towards the pandemic. 

This is further compounded by the message disseminated or omitted from being disseminated by the government in the political arena of the country. There are two examples that may be used in this regard. The actions of government officials in public is one example. According to an expert insight published by the University of Edinburgh, government authorities and statesmen wearing or not wearing masks was directly associated with the particular state’s commitment or lack thereof to combating the disease as well as showcasing the policy priority of the country. In countries where heads of state wear masks, especially in public the rate of adherence to mask wearing requirements is higher than states where heads of state refuse to wear masks. The study argues and Addis Zeybe concurs that leaders wearing masks in public or choosing not to set the tone of either more caution or more negligence. In light of this, one must ask how our leaders are behaving in recent times. Do they wear masks? The answer here is unfortunately no. Especially during meetings and public gatherings, mask wearing is increasingly not observed by public officials. While Addis Zeybe is not claiming that in all events masks are not publicly worn, it is true that there have been several occasions where public officials neither wore masks nor observed social distancing. The reunion between the commander in chief Abiy Ahmed Ali (PHD) and high ranking ENDF members can be an example. During the meeting held in Mekele following the departure of the TPLF, pictures (eye catching ones’ at that) were all over social media without the prime minister or the high ranking ENDF officials present at the meeting wearing masks. 

The second example is related to public health and pandemic related discourse forming part of the country’s political discussion or not. In the recently concluded US elections, one of the key victory grounds for recently inaugurated President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris was related to the pandemic and the response of the previous administration which is widely viewed as problematic. Throughout the electoral process, campaign candidates were asked to outline their plans for dealing with the pandemic. Irrespective of domestic challenges that require attention like police brutality and the rise of populist white supermasist movement, the country thought the pandemic and the plan by both candidates to deal with it deserved attention. As the election in Ethiopia is fast approaching, the question is will authorities in office and bidding for one focus on the pandemic or is it going to take the backseat like it currently has. Will the discourse be dominated by only nominal and obvious political issues, or will the public have the opportunity to see plans to contain the pandemic in Ethiopia. Concurrently, what are the precautionary measures that will be implemented on the campaign trails and during the dates of the election are questions that should be asked. 

To come to the point of the current editorial, Addis Zeybe strongly believes that despite the continuing and arguably increased risk of infection, spread and mortality rate associated with the pandemic, it is increasingly fading away as a public health concern or as a policy priority. Yes, recently the message when calling people or the automated dial tone has been updated and campaigns in different parts of the country (Such as the No mask, No service campaign in the Dire Dawa City Administration) are starting to reappear. However, Addis Zeybe anticipates a resurgence in the number of cases and human cost of the pandemic due to the events of the past few months and the events of the coming ones. Incidents of the past such as the conflict in Tigray - which has paralyzed pandemic response schemes in the region including hospitals and equipment - and future events such as the impending national and regional elections require the attention of policy makers, authorities and health care officials in order to contain the spread and impact of the pandemic. This is partly because the pandemic is still a global health crisis as can be attested by the reinstatement of lockdowns in different developed countries (especially those in Europe). The other reason is the fact that the country is operating at a very low capacity when it comes to contain the pandemic which in turn means it cannot afford more cases. Therefore, Addis Zeybe - in the current editorial - seeks to express its concern at the lack of attention being accorded to the pandemic in recent times and pleads with relevant government authorities and other concerned members of the community to ramp up efforts contributing towards strengthening the public and the state’s response to the pandemic.

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