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Ethiopia: Fighting Both War and COVID

Editors’ note: The fight against COVID-19 in Ethiopia is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region, where the humanitarian crisis makes it impossible to impose restrictions that would help stem the infection rate. As Maria Gerth-Niculescu conveys in her update on her reporting last winter, imposing a lockdown anywhere in Ethiopia is unworkable.

Ethiopia has seen a rise in cases over the last month, and is currently facing its worst wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When I visited the Medhanialem Health Center in the town of Mendida last year, the daily cases in the country were still quite low, the hospitals were not as overcrowded as they are now. At the time, there was much hope that Ethiopia would be relatively spared by the pandemic. 

Currently, there are about 1,500 to 2,000 official new cases every day, but the testing capacity is very limited. So, if you look at the positivity rate, it’s at around 20-25 percent. The number of severe cases has also increased drastically. The health personnel is overworked and hospitals are facing a shortage of protective equipment. 

Although some measures are in place, such as mandatory face masks and a limitation of gatherings, there still has been no full lockdown because Ethiopia simply can’t afford to force people to stay inside. 

A patient is cared for at the Medhanialem Clinic in Mendida, Ethiopia.
A patient is cared for at the Medhanialem Clinic in Mendida, Ethiopia. The unstable economic and humanitarian situation in the country makes mandatory lockdowns and other restrictions to manage the public health crisis unworkable. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

Although the vaccination campaign has started, it’s important to keep in mind that Ethiopia is a population of 110 million people, so this requires a number of vaccine doses that the country simply does not have at the moment, and it’s unclear by when Ethiopia will have enough vaccines to reach herd immunity. It is planning to vaccinate about 20 percent of its population by the end of the year, but that’s still not enough. 

The government is now hoping that, with stronger restrictions and mandatory face masks, the cases will go down. But with the rainy season around the corner and elections planned for early June, it’s very difficult to predict how the situation will evolve.

To learn how you can help the church in Ethiopia address the COVID pandemic, click here.

Maria Gerth-Niculescu is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She has worked for France 24 and Deutsche Welle.

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