Feature Analysis: Ethiopians brace for #COVID19 economic hardships, security crack down & political uncertainty

The full extent of the lasting impact of the pandemic on Ethiopian society is hard to determine, leaving the lives of millions in limbo

Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan  &

Zecharias Zelalem @ZekuZelalem

Addis Abeba, May 11/2020 – A little over three weeks into Ethiopia’s third state of emergency in as many years, albeit this time for a different reason, Ethiopians are struggling to cope with layoffs, a loss of income and the host of regulations put in place to combat the spread of the covid-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Health has listed 250 confirmed cases of the virus, 105 recoveries and five deaths thus far. Among the various measures introduced by the government include a ban on large gatherings as well as reduction of civil society office hours as majorly are told to work from home., one of the earlier measures.

For many, life in the pandemic era has already proven challenging and personal economic woes continue to be a source of angst for many.

For Bereket, who worked in a soap factory in the town of Sebeta, some 20km outside of Addis Abeba, in Oromia Region State Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne, her inability to afford rent is her most pressing concern. She was recently laid off with about a hundred co-workers.

Dafa Soap & Detergent PLC, where Bereket worked, is a privately held Chinese owned company which was established on August 2018 & entered the market with its products seven months ago. It started with products in the form of detergent & was planning to start production of liquid soap in the coming few months. It employees up to 200 employees at times.

“I earned about 800 birr per month and with rent, I barely managed to get by,” Bereket told Addis Standard. “Now my life has been turned upside down. I can’t even get around town as much as I used to anymore because with the lockdown, public transportation prices have doubled.”

Passengers queuing for city bus. Berket uses blue taxis to commute from Addis Abeba to Sebeta

The transportation price hikes are due to Addis Abeba city administration’s decision to limit number of passengers aboard private taxis.  The city administration’s directive also enforces to reduce the number of passengers aboard public buses to 30, although prices were to remain unchanged. The blue minibuses, a hallmark of the city, normally load up to a dozen or more passengers. Now, they are no longer permitted to carry more than six passengers at a time. To cope with the loss in revenue, minibus drivers were allowed to double fares, which for the likes of Bereket, made the daily commute from Addis Abeba to Sebeta a costly affair. As it were, city buses are notoriously unreliable.

“They haven’t told us how long this lockdown will last. But I will not last another month like this,” Bereket adds. “I’m going to have to move in with relatives in the countryside, because even when I was earning wages, Addis Abeba was becoming unbearable costly to live in.”

The story of families who rely on remittances from relatives abroad are are not different. Lockdowns around the globe, coupled with mass layoffs and subsequent loss of income are affecting family members in Ethiopia who relied on these remittances dependents in Ethiopia. Elias is a student at Dessie University in the Amhara regional state, while his five younger siblings live in Addis Abeba. He is now back in Addis Abeba to be with his siblings as universities and schools across the country have closed. The only money that has kept all six afloat comes in the form of remittances, wired to them from Kuwait, where both their parents live and work.

“Our parents lost their jobs due to the lockdown enforced in Kuwait,” Elias told Addis Standard. “They pay our rent and we have nothing else to manage with.”

The siblings have reason to be worried, as the lockdown in Kuwait is reportedly going to last for three months. “I have some savings, Elias adds., “I used to find odd jobs or temporary gigs that could have helped my siblings and I. But now we don’t have this. I’m wondering if the government will pay attention to those like us or just ignore us.”

The stories of Bereket and Elias are the stories of thousands others. Young people with no safety net to fall back; people who have no other means to afford a meal if a single paycheck is missing.

Fear of frontline health workers

A disturbing trend was noticed in the first few weeks particularly against healthcare professions who faced multiple stigma ranging from being denied access to public transport such as taxis to being told to vacate their rented residence houses for fear they may contract the virus while on duty. Several testimonies posted on social media by medical practitioners have raised alarm among the public.

Sa’eed is one such Ethiopian who is a medical school graduate and was stationed in a regional state as part of the government’s residency program. He has recently been redeployed to Addis Abeba. “I’m on a standby list as we’re needed on the front lines.”       

He is wary of reactions from people who learn of his working as a pandemic frontline professional. “My own neighbors asked me if I was going to be treating coronavirus patients. I didn’t realize it immediately, but they were asking out of concerns for their own wellbeing” he told Addis Standard., adding that his colleagues too have shared with him similar stories of acquaintances looking at them with suspicion.

Alarmed by the incident, the Ministry of Health said that it was providing housing facilities for healthcare professionals. Responding to the initiative,
Noah Real Estate has provided 48 rooms apartment which will accommodate 350 health professionals free of charge for three months.

“I am quite relieved that frontline medical professionals are being offered apartments. This way, I’ll avoid the stares and won’t put my family at risk,” Sa’eed said.

Ethiopian health professionals have been echoing their worries on a number of social media forums where they congregate, among them the Hakim Facebook page, which has over 167,000 followers. Our communities ought to respect our contributions. We shouldn’t be portrayed as a danger to society, said Yemane, a nurse serving on the front-line. 

Government officials have warned against any such discrimination towards health professionals, and have announced state benefits in addition to the housing accommodations that Sa’eed mentioned, including all encompassing life insurance packages.  

While the initial ordeal encountered by healthcare professionals has subsided thanks largely to the government’s efforts, many are now worried that after weeks of people staying home, normalcy is returning to most parts of the country, a worrying sign of negligence, according to Dr. Nuredin Luke, a medical professional working at Shashemene’s Referral Hospital, 255 km south of the capital. Dr. Nuredin says that the announcement of a state of emergency did little to change the general public’s attitudes.

Dr. Nuredin Luke. Image: Facebook/Nuredin

Despite a noticeable government campaign in the initial few weeks after the first case was reported in Ethiopia, public transportation, including cross country services, is returning back to what it was before. The busy city of Shashemene itself is back to business as usual with all the open markets in the city crowded as before. “It seems as though everyone is neglecting the disease at a time when enhanced preventive measures are necessary,” Dr. Nuredin, who turned his own Facebook page with more than 114, 000 followers into COVID-19 awareness page, told Addis Standard. But even more worrying, he says, is that frontline professionals like himself aren’t given standard personal protection equipment (PPE). “Health professionals are yet to receive protective gears. This is the daily topic amongst health professionals in hospitals. Also, with regard to covid-19, professionals haven’t been adequately trained in infection prevention and control (IPAC) measures,” he said.

Slow on COVID-19 enforcement, harsh on opposition crack down

The government’s loose enforcement of its own state of emergency measures announced to contain, such as the no enforcement moves to control a gathering of more than four people in one place, seems different when it comes to dealing with its critiques and opposition political party members. Several accounts coming from various parts of the country indicate that there is an ongoing security crack down targeting government critics and opposition party members in the name of enforcing the state of emergency or otherwise.

On April 25, the Addis Abeba police have detained Eskinder Nega, founder and leader of the opposition party, Balderas for True Democracy, for hours before releasing him in the evening. The police accused Eskinder of violating the state of emergency rule on gathering. Two days before that, a handcuffed picture of Abdo Abajobir, an employee of Oromia education Bureau in Jimma Zone, Cherkosa Wereda, caused a social media outrage as sever heavily armed special forces of the region escorted him to nearby police station accusing him of harboring weapons. And recent reports emerging from Sidama zone in SNNPRS reveal the an intensified arbitrary detention of Sidama activities, academicians and political party members in recent weeks.

These are just the ones that made it to the mainstream media. Several individual accounts across various social media platforms indicate that there has been an uptick in police brutality against civilians in the name of enforcing the COVID-19 state of emergency. Two of such instances where the police have hassled individuals can be found here and here.

Such incidents have prompted the state sanctioned rights commission, Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to release a statement on April 13 calling for refrain “from punitive approach, unnecessary use of force and operate with a sense of educating people on the public health emergency measures.” EHRC also forwarded recommendation that it said would help security forces to discharge their responsibilities in enforcing the law than resorting to violent measures. Among them, rule of law and principle of strict necessity and proportionality.

Political uncertainty

Compounding the economic hardships and security crack downs are the looming political uncertainty triggered by Ethiopia’s deferred election and escalated by the sabre-rattlings and tense back and forth between opposition politicians and politicians of the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

On May 07, the Prime Minister released a video in which he issued a stern warning that his government will not hesitate to use force against those who he accused of engaging in illegal political activities and acts that are threatening to violate the constitution and constitutional order in Ethiopia. The Prime Minister said his government will do anything necessary to protect and defend the safety of the country and its people.

This political atmosphere has rattled many Ethiopians who now feel a potential political meltdown is likely to threaten the country’s collective ability to contain the spread of COVID-19, which is seeing a sharp rise in community transmission over the last few days.

Kibur Alemu is a tour guide who also operates his own tour and travel agency that he was in the process of acquiring a business license when the first case of COVID-19 was announced back in March. He told Addis Standard that he though the fight against the virus has, “for once” diverted the attention from the country’s ever polarized politics which was exacerbated by the announcement of the general election. ” I have never been in favor of holding the elections in the first place and was relieved to hear that it was postponed due to the virus,” he said, “although my business concept was the first to bite dust, I was still hoping that when everything of this virus was behind us, we will pick things from the scratch.”

Kibur says his hopes are now dashed he fears the resurgence of the “bad politics in the middle of a pandemic” will bring in “a crisis the type we have never see in the history of this country.” Many people share Kibur’s views.

The full extent of the lasting impact of the pandemic on Ethiopian society is hard to determine, but not that hard to estimate from the fears and uncertainties many of its citizens are expressing openly. With predictions that the worst is yet to come, Ethiopia’s level of preparedness, both economically, security wise and politically, will certainly be tested within the coming weeks and months. AS

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