Ethiopia’s technocratic government decided it could not afford a rich-country response to the virus. Though its economy has grown rapidly in recent decades, Ethiopia remains a poor country with a per capita income — adjusted for prices — of just $2,500. When the pandemic began, it had 22 ventilators dedicated to Covid.
Arkebe Oqubay, senior minister and special adviser to the prime minister, says the government concluded early it could not afford a lockdown that would be difficult to enforce and socially costly. Nor did it immediately stop direct flights from China, a stance for which it was much criticised. Instead, temperature checks were imposed at the international airport. Its first case came from Japan, he says, with later imported infections mainly from Europe.
Instead of strict lockdown, Ethiopia chose a response built around public messaging. “This is not a disease you fight by ventilators or intensive care units,” says Mr Arkebe, “90 per cent of the solution is hand washing and social distancing. The only way we can play and win is if we focus on prevention.”
The government has leaned heavily on a community-based health system built by Meles Zenawi, prime minister until his death in 2012, and his health minister, one Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, now director-general of the World Health Organization. Shunning flashy hospitals, Ethiopia has instead poured what money it can into basic healthcare: vaccination campaigns and child and maternal support.
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