By Africa Program
October 14, 2020
Ethiopia is battling with the multi-dimensional effects of COVID-19 amidst a fragile political transition that began in March 2018. Like many African states, Ethiopia’s healthcare system is quite poor despite improvements in recent decades. The country was not by any means ready and able to tackle COVID-19 by itself when the pandemic broke out across the world. So far in Ethiopia, more than a thousand people have died of the 65,000-plus who have been infected with the virus. However, without the government’s vigorous diplomatic efforts, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Ethiopia would be far higher. Ethiopia is not the only beneficiary of its COVID diplomacy, which has made a small but significant contribution to the overall fight against the spread of the virus in Africa.
Traditionally, initiatives to address Africa’s various crises have been driven by state and non-state actors from the Global North. As the global system itself is a product of the North’s international political interest, reactions to global crises that affect the South have reflected this, as attested by the international responses to Ebola outbreaks in Africa in recent years. However, the worldwide effect of the COVID-19 crisis has been too severe to allow the North to give due attention to Africa and play its usual leading role. This has created a vacuum in terms of COVID-specific initiatives on the continent. This blog discusses how Ethiopia has attempted to fill this vacuum by taking the lead via what we can call Ethiopia’s COVID diplomacy.
Phase I: Engaging the West for Financial Resources and Debt Relief
Ethiopia’s first reaction to COVID-19 was to remind the richest countries of the Global North and members of the G-20—who were consumed with preventing the spread of the virus in their own countries—that the virus cannot be tackled by individual national efforts alone. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia argued in a series of Op-Eds in the New York Times, Financial Times, and World Economic Forum blog that COVID-19 is a global problem requiring concerted global action that takes Africa’s challenges into account. In doing so, he proposed three major actions: debt relief and cancellation, support for the Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization, and a USD$150 billion aid package for emergency financing. The combined effect of these actions, if realized, would ease Africa’s debt burden and allow countries to reallocate funds from debt-servicing to health services, as well as provide financial resources to absorb the socio-economic shocks caused by the pandemic.
Phase II: Creating an African Hub for Distribution of COVID-19 Testing Supplies
In addition to lobbying the Global North for financial support, Ethiopia’s government pushed for a public-private humanitarian partnership to combat the spread of the pandemic in Africa. In doing so, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (PM) reportedly convinced Chinese tycoon Jack Ma to support the PM’s initiative to increase the distribution of COVID-related medical supplies to African countries. So far, the Ethiopian government in partnership with the Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundation has distributed millions of testing kits and hundreds of thousands of masks, ventilators, and protective suits across Africa.
Furthermore, the Ethiopian government has leveraged its geographic and infrastructural advantages to make Addis Ababa the continent’s logistical hub in the fight against the coronavirus. Drawing on the country’s geographically central location within Africa and the extensive reach of its flagship carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, Addis Ababa has been made the hub for the so-called “Solidarity Flights.” These flights have transported across Africa much-needed medical supplies collected from/by the UN agencies, the Africa CDC, and international donors. To date, Ethiopian Airlines continues to be the main transporter throughout Africa of medical supplies, both donated and bought, originating from outside the continent.
Phase III: Manufacturing
Ethiopia’s COVID diplomacy includes a focus on building sustainable in-house capacity to manufacture COVID-19 testing kits. In a joint venture with a Chinese pharmaceutical company, on September 13 Ethiopia inaugurated a manufacturing facility with a capacity to produce 10 million testing kits per year. In launching the facility, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister said it is expected to produce kits that fulfill demand in Ethiopia as well as in other African countries. The PM further noted that “after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturing center will switch to the production of other types of nucleic acid detection reagents, such as AIDS testing kits, tuberculosis nucleic acid test kits, and other locally needed RT PCR test kit products.”
Strategic Utilization of a Global Health Crisis?
Ethiopia’s COVID diplomacy is one of many initiatives to combat the spread of the coronavirus on the continent. The efficacy of this diplomacy—aimed at enhancing African agency and strategic utilization of the crisis in international relations—may not be ascertained at this early stage. Nevertheless, it is worth emulating by other African countries in order to reduce the impact of the pandemic on their socio-economic and political well-being. Moreover, Ethiopia’s COVID-19 diplomacy can be seen as a step toward the assertion of African agency, despite financial and logistical constraints, in managing a global crisis that affects Africans. As a result, it strengthens Africans’ sense that, rather than being just victims of crises or bystanders in world affairs, they are instead assuming new roles and responsibilities in managing their international relations.
Yonas Tariku is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), Addis Ababa University. He is also the academic coordinator of the MA Program in Peace and Security Studies. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]
Photo source: 3D illustration of medical face mask with Ethiopia flag as design. Credit: MyNewImages/Shutterstock.com. Photo ID: 1787156219. Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/3d-illustration-medical-face-mask-ethiopia-1787156219.