Voices From the Pandemic: In Ethiopia, ‘Everyone is Fighting the Same Battle’

Recently, we received the following report from the Meki Catholic Secretariat in Ethiopia.

The coronavirus has wiped out the differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, healthy and weak. Everyone is fighting the same battle. It has affected the entire world because the virus has no boundaries, no religious affiliation, and no rules to keep.  

The reactions of the people are mixed: some are disturbed and paralyzed by fear; others are confused; some others are taking precautions such as staying at home, social distancing etc. However, many people in the countryside, due to poverty, are unable to get sanitizers and soaps. Therefore, the most vulnerable people are exposed to imminent danger. They are afraid of being easily infected and also worry about the scarcity of basic needs, such as food. 

In the vicariate of Meki, we have observed the strong and deep faith of some Christians who really believe that prayer is always the solution. Despite restrictions on movement, some Christians come daily to the church for personal and common prayers. They give more time to pray not only for their daily spiritual needs, but also to halt the spread of the virus in the world.

There is so much we need to pray about, and so many we need to pray for.

The pandemic will have devastating consequences on livelihoods and employment. Thousands will lose income. Many will fail to access resources needed for day-to-day well-being. Others will require new skills and training to find new ways of supporting themselves and their families.

More urgently, the economic impact of COVID-19 will have significant bearing on vulnerable groups — especially children, the elderly, people with disabilities and those who already have very poor health conditions. People outside of the formal labor market (such as daily workers) have already been let go by their employers, so they are also vulnerable. They have very limited savings or access to food; they have to earn their living from their daily wage. They cannot afford to go without work for any significant period of time. Women are not only more likely than men to work in precarious, informal jobs, but they also shoulder a greater share of unpaid care for children at home, which adds to their burden.

Due to the pandemic, schools are closed throughout the country. Students miss out on opportunities to learn; more vulnerable students may not return to the education system. This translates to reduced education in the community, which can ultimately harm the children, their families and the economies of the places where they work and live. Some school feeding programs have been suspended, which has already negatively affected children.

“Despite restrictions on movement, some Christians come daily to the church for personal and common prayers. They give more time to pray not only for their daily spiritual needs, but also to halt the spread of the virus in the world.”

According to the W.H.O. 2020 report, the COVID-19 pandemic is having, and will have for some time, serious effects on economic growth in the most affected countries. Reduction of industrial and tertiary services production is affecting domestic consumption, supply chains, international trade and the balance of payments, public and private debt and fiscal space. Diminishing fiscal revenues – and the repurposing of already limited government budgets for the COVID-19 response – will negatively impact already overextended social programs and services (health, education, etc.), leaving the most vulnerable without essential services. Sluggish economic activity will bring about unemployment, declining wages and, hence, loss of income.

Among those most affected:

People suffering from chronic diseases, under nutrition (including due to food insecurity), lower immunity, certain disabilities, and old age. These conditions increase their susceptibility to the viral infection. Some of these people may also be discriminated against, thus limiting their access to prevention and treatment services.

People with disabilities, marginalized groups and people in hard-to-reach areas. These people lack sufficient economic resources to access health-care. Fear of being stigmatized or discriminated against may complicate how, if, or where they are able to access health care. Increased movement restrictions due to COVID-19 may worsen these existing challenges. Some do not receive information to protect themselves from contamination and lack social support networks to help them face the new threat. They often live in crowded environments that lack adequate health, water and sanitation facilities to prevent contamination and the spread of the virus.

Children losing or being separated from primary caregivers due to quarantine or confinement measures are at increased risk of neglect, abandonment, violence and exploitation.

Women and girls who have to abide by sociocultural norms that require the authorization of a male family member to seek health care and receive appropriate treatments, or who lack power to take decisions, are at greater risk of not being tested for the disease and treated. Women caring for others, and the predominant role they play as health and social welfare responders, are particularly exposed to potential contamination.

People who have frequent social contacts for labor, i.e., household members in charge of fetching water and wood (who are often women and children), or who are involved in farm work, or who have been repeatedly displaced have greater contacts with potentially infectious people.

People who are losing their income. Daily workers, small-scale agricultural producers, petty traders and similar groups who cannot access their workplace, land, or markets due to COVID-19 mobility restrictions are unable to secure the income required to meet their basic needs. This might lead to lower food consumption, selling off of assets, debt, early/forced marriage and forced prostitution.

In some parts of the country, people are being infected without traceable origin. This may be a cause for rapid spread of the virus in bigger towns and cities in Ethiopia. The COVID-19 pandemic more severely impacts the lives, livelihoods and food security situations of very poor people. That includes some street vendors, daily wage earners, homeless street persons, temporary migrant workers and beggars. Most of this group of people cannot work from home or cannot stay home. They have only two choices: (1) to go out for their daily subsistence amid the virus or (2) die of hunger at home. It may be very challenging to keep these people at home, as they may engage in some criminal acts to access food.

Emergency scenarios, along with related uncertainties and precautions, have become the reality in Ethiopia. They are affecting all of us. But more than the pandemic, the ripple effects we are facing — due to the movement restriction and the shocking uncertainties we have to deal with — are matters of grave concern.  

Most poor families in urban areas had been pursuing a life that has been from hand to mouth. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. For the last 20 years, Meki Catholic Secretariat (M.C.S.) has been struggling to help solve community problems of poverty, malnourishment, health problems, illiteracy, lack of social empowerment, and personal and environmental cleanliness. The pandemic has made these situations worse. These families are in a critical condition.

Restrictions on movement and enforced social distance means having lots of people in the urban areas end up with no food. Already, countless mothers, children and elderly people are crying at the gate of every parish church, begging for something to eat. Right now, there are mothers crying for something to feed their children. Some mothers will be thrown out of their houses since they cannot pay the rent; daily laborers who used to live in single rooms with as many as eight youngsters have become hopeless without a job.  

The magnitude of the problem facing the country economically and socially (health care, education, cultural practices and governance) is already frustrating the community beyond the limit.  

The problem of ceasing public and private work has completely destabilized those who demand on church institutions for their livelihood. For instance, schools are closed, and parents have stopped paying tuition, so teachers are not paid their salaries. These kinds of interwoven problems are shaking the fundamental identity of the church and crippling its mission.

In sum: redirecting the work of M.C.S. to the common enemy of COVID-19 is critically important.

We are engaged in a battle of life and death.        

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