Until recently some might say despite financial constraints Ethiopia has managed to keep its COVID-19 cases to a minimum. The response to the pandemic was somewhat swift and many measures were taken to avoid an outbreak. The country bolstered preparedness to contain a potential outbreak of the disease by tightening up surveillance, diagnosis, infection prevention and control and public health education to swiftly detect cases and limit widespread infections.Though encouraging – at least compared to other global effects of the epidemic – Ethiopia has recorded a rather lower number of infections since the outbreak was announced. Currently, the percentage of infection is 0.00316 which is a very small portion of the total population. But this is probably not an accurate representation of the infection as Ethiopia also has the lowest rates of testing with only 0.167 percent of the population tested for the coronavirus. Yet, one may conclude that the spread of the epidemic has not gotten out of hand as only 1.89 percent of those tested have been identified as positive cases.On the afternoon of June 16 – 93 days after the first confirmed case – the number of total cases has reached 3,630. The virus has claimed the lives of sixty-one Ethiopians while around 738 patients have fully recovered from the coronavirus. As we approach day 100, a qualitative analysis of the measures taken to combat the pandemic by the relevant authorities is an important and timely endeavour. Efforts by the Ministry of HealthThe Communications Head of the National COVID Response Task Force, Dr. Tigistu Adamu (MD) has told Addis Zeybe that any evaluation on the response to a certain pandemic must be done in comparison with the preparedness and response indicators of the WHO. He stated that in relation to these preparedness criterions have been met by the Ministry of Health before and after the reporting of the first case on March 13, 2020. The preparatory steps taken to set up a task force and an organization of a team of medical practitioners at the Ethiopian Public Health Institute in Pastor Hospital were mentioned by the Doctor and the importance of such steps were emphasized.Discussing the response of the government since the confirmation of the first case, Dr. Tigistu said that the government implemented major epidemic control measures starting with the regulation of movement to and from the country by implementing mandatory quarantine measures. Community engagement, mandatory quarantine, investigation and testing of potential cases, raising public awareness in collaboration with different media outlets, and other measures were identified as success stories in the Ethiopian response to COVID19 by him. Dr. Tigistu Adamu said that there is a lack of consistency in the level of awareness within the public as one of the key challenges in the efforts to contain the epidemic. He noted that the public has become less cautious as the number of cases increase in the country. Inconsistency in communication and inter-agency coordination was also identified as an important area of concern in the response to the virus thus far. Message management in the process of communicating with persons suspected of contact with a confirmed patient was another issue raised by the doctor.Looking forward, the Doctor recommended that testing capability is one of the key areas in order to better respond to the pandemic in the future. He noted that it is important to observe the necessary hygiene measures such as wearing masks, social distancing and constant use of sanitary materials. The situation surrounding health care workers was also identified by the doctor as a key area of focus. According to Dr. Tigistu the lack of personal protection equipment has led to the number of infected persons doubling after June. He emphasized that in addition to making equipment available, there is also a need to train health workers on the proper use of such materials. Innovative approaches such as the distinction of COVID19 centers as priority areas were suggested as well. The Ethiopian Airlines and the spread of the virusSince the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of the year, experts have repeatedly noted the economic implications of the virus will be as devastating as the human cost of the virus. Some go to the extent of suggesting that the economic implications will be higher than the human cost of the virus, especially in third world countries. One of the industries that are yet to see the worse implications of the pandemic is the Aviation industry. The Ethiopian Airlines – arguably one of the biggest airlines in Africa – is not immune from this. ET has reported billions of dollars in losses due to the decline in flights and the suspension of flights to certain destinations.However, the Airline has also been criticized for playing a big part in the spread of the virus – particularly in relation to flights to China during the height of the epidemic in the country. The Airline has held its ground and continued operation during the pandemic. Cargo flights have continued to different parts of the world as earning ET recognitions for its contribution to the global war against the pandemic. The establishment represents one of the most successful government entities in the FDRE structure, enjoying peculiar autonomy due to the huge economic and geopolitical role it plays in Ethiopia. This is reflected in the recent comments by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claiming that the airline has played a critical role in mitigating the economic toll the virus could have potentially had in the country.As the pandemic strengthens its grip on Ethiopia, however, critics have suggested that the refusal by Ethiopian Airlines to cease flights in the earlier stages of the pandemic has contributed to the spread of the virus. The unique decision by the Airline to continue operation was questioned by many in and out of the country as a potential door opened for the pandemic and even huge risk for the brand of the prestigious airline. The Airlines unrelenting position on the matter even squared it off against its Workers Union over the safety of workers.Despite increased criticism, however, ET did not cease flights until the state of emergency was enacted, roughly a month after the pandemic was reported in Ethiopia. As of March 30, the airline suspended all flights to around 80 destinations in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus.While these decisions by the Ethiopian Airlines and the government’s reluctance to force the hands of the institution to cease flights amid the pandemic have contributed to the spread of the virus, quantifying the effects is quite challenging due to the nature of the virus. However, it is clear that from the recent spike in cases, that a decision to cease flights – specially to China and other hubs of the virus – must have contributed to the increased rate the virus is currently spreading in.The State of Emergency: Legality, effectiveness and other concernsAmong the measures introduced by the FDRE government, one of the most important was the introduction of the state of emergency which was issued in accordance with Articles 77 (10) and 93 of the constitution. The state of emergency was declared on April 8 and has since been in application. The proclamation named the State of Emergency Proclamation Enacted to Counter and Control the Spread of COVID-19 and Mitigate Its Impact Proclamation No. 3/2020 and the implementing directives enacted in line with it contain several precautionary measures in accordance with the recommendations of the WHO.Within the legislation that declared the state of emergency, there are several rights legitimately limited in order to guarantee the successful containment of the coronavirus. These limitations include the prohibition of meetings in religious, governmental and other settings, the mandatory requirement on every citizen to wear masks, reduction of public transportation to 50% of the capacity of the vehicle, border restrictions, suspension of visitation rights for inmates and the suspension of education as well as entertainment institutions.In line with the legal actions taken by the government to help combat the epidemic, the recognition for the need to enact legislation that would decrease the rate of the spread of the virus within the community must be commended. However, the application of the legislation is another issue that requires attention. From loose enforcement of the legislations by authorities to the strong allegations of human rights violations by major international human rights organizations against law enforcement officials, the application of the terms of the state of emergency has had many critics. Recently, the Human Rights Watch expressed its concern over the use of the state of emergency to curb freedom of speech by citing the cases of journalist Yayesew Shimelis and lawyer Elizabeth Kebede. The newly structured Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has also announced its intentions to carry out an extensive evaluation of the human rights conditions during the application of the state of emergency.Key human rights concerns include vague definitions of crimes, a wholesome stipulation of harsh punishments for a wide range of crimes, privacy issues, provisions against the freedom of speech and suspension of the criminal procedure code. In this regard, it must be understood that mentioning the coronavirus and the proclamation as the only reason for such human rights concerns is not fair as the violation of human rights principles is the consistent feature of the country’s history even before the pandemic and the proclamation. However, it must also be noted that there needs to be due attention given to the matter as it threatens the ongoing national transitional process under the new administration.Elections Postponed amid the coronavirus crisisWhile the jury is still out on the constitutionality of the decision, the Ethiopian authorities currently in office have postponed the elections until the foreseeable future. The decision was met with suspicion and countless criticisms from the opposition, certain media outlets and other stakeholders with allegations against the ruling party using the epidemic as a justification to stay in power. However, despite such criticisms the government took steps to pass this decision in the past month. One of the most anticipated political events since the introduction of the new administration, the decision to postpone the election can be described as one of the serious effects of the pandemic in the Ethiopian context. The elections were scheduled to take place in August this year.The main issue perse in the constitutional impasse the country finds itself in is the fact that according to the constitution the term of both the national and federal government ends on October 6 2020 at which point the newly elected government would take power. However, due to the coronavirus epidemic, the election board suggested that it would be difficult to hold the elections at the proposed time and recommended the election be postponed. After deliberations by the National Constitutional Inquiry Board, the lower chamber of the house - which is tasked with the duty of interpreting the constitution where there is a lack of clarity - approved the decision to postpone the dates of the poll. The opposition parties have alleged an opportunistic approach by Dr. Abiy to extend his term and questioned the legality of the decision making process. At the same time, the Northern part of the country is riddled with another constitutional crisis as the ruling party of the Tigray region is adamant on holding the elections in August despite the decisions of the Federal government. The Role of Humanitarian AgenciesAnother important feature of the battle to contain the virus is the flexibility that has been showcased by different local and international NGOs. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has contributed to the fight against the virus by shifting its initial budget and committing 2.7 Million Birr – initially intended to fund the operational activities of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS). The ICRC has also in collaboration with the ERCS has distributed personal protection equipment such as soaps, hand washing stations and other important preventive materials to over 31 detention centers across Ethiopia.The Humanitarian Group of INGOs in Ethiopia (HINGO) has also reported that it has redirected activities worth $70 Million after efforts of collective reprogramming by the cluster. The UN has also adopted similar measures redirecting nearly $80 Million towards the support of the efforts of the National authorities to combat the coronavirus epidemic. These efforts are commendable as the contribution of non-governmental organizations is of paramount importance considering the resources and expertise they possess.
A PIECE BYBruck Negash
Bruck Negash is a human rights researcher currently working at Addis Zeybe as a Research Editor.