Life ‘After’ the Pandemic: Ethiopia’s Response to COVID-19’s Paradoxical Effect

Life ‘After’ the Pandemic: Ethiopia’s Response to COVID-19’s Paradoxical Effect

June, 2021

naol befkadu

It is a conspicuous fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in worldwide lockdowns. But before COVID-19 caused forced lockdowns, Ethiopia was already in a fragile economic state. Moreover, beneath its shaky economic state, the country was fracturing along ethnic and political lines. COVID-19 was not just bad news for the country, it was more like a typhoon or a thunderstorm fast destroying an already fractured building.

Both as an ordinary Ethiopian and a medical professional, looking back at the effects of the pandemic on the country, I am left with conflicting views. One is that the supposedly coming typhoon did not happen as was expected, medically speaking, at least as compared to the West and now, the East. Intense restrictions did not last more than six months. Schools opened and government employees returned to their normal work schedules sooner than many nations. Ethiopians started talking about the lockdown as ‘during COVID-19’ and the current time as ‘after covid’ as in, a post-covid era.

I work in Tikur Anbessa Specialized Hospital, the largest hospital in the country, which returned to its full function long before vaccines arrived in Ethiopia. Just after the pandemic began, our wards were evacuated and we were told to treat patients via telemedicine. Our medical school, which is by far the largest medical school in the country in terms of both staff and students, was closed two weeks after the onset of the pandemic in the country. We expected nothing less than a plague. Fear and anxiety surfaced within the hospital leadership and our senior physicians. Well, this too didn’t last more than six months—from April to August 2020. Our hospital returned to its full function, the medical school was opened and life continued just as it had before the pandemic, only with a few measures such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizers.  Life post-covid seemed to be happening.

The other observation I would like to make is that in other aspects, the consequences of the pandemic on the country were astoundingly immense. Although the people did not feel the medical effect of the pandemic as in the Western world or in Asia, the effect of the pandemic was beyond description when other aspects of life are considered. We felt as if the pandemic had mercy on us, but ‘life post-pandemic’ was nothing but a defense mechanism to conceal the damage and the challenges the pandemic posed for the individual as well as for the socio-economic and political situation in the country.

This article is a summary of how Ethiopia responded to the pandemic both from a medical perspective and from social, economic and political perspectives.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic

It was shortly after her appointment that Dr. Lia Tadesse, the State Minister of Health, was faced with one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Dr. Lia, specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, succeeded Dr. Amir Aman, at the time the youngest minister to lead Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health, which takes “Healthier Citizens for a Prosperous Nation” as its motto. When the first case was announced on March 13, 2020, Dr. Lia became the headline of local and national television news. Since then she and the office she runs have been updating the daily cases of COVID-19 in the country.1Wuilbercq, E. (2020, May 4). Q&A: How Ethiopia’s health minister is preparing for coronavirus. Thomson Reuters Foundation. (accessed on June 7, 2021)

Tikur Anbesa Street, Addis Ababa

When the first case was announced by the then mayor of Addis, Takele Uma, the news was disturbing to all of us, especially to the residents of Addis Ababa. The city was gripped by a huge fear and depression. Everyone started rushing home. Parents went to schools and nurseries to take their kids home. Government employees stopped their jobs and returned home.

I remember being in a seminar with Professor Amha Mekasha at our hospital when the news of the pandemic was announced. Prof. Amha was presenting on the challenges of medical leadership and facilities in Ethiopia. Before he finished his presentation, he took questions from the podium. One of the participants raised his hand and said, “Sir, COVID-19 is in the country!” We all laughed but at the same time we were shocked by the alarm. COVID-19, as if a guest to be welcomed, was in the country already!

Immediately on the same day, the prices of surgical masks rose from US$0.15 (5 ETB) to US$6.25 (208 ETB), a 4000% increase within hours. The situation was worrying after an image of people queuing to buy masks appeared on social media. With the rise in the price of medical equipment, economic inflation increased significantly in less than 24 hours. The value of vegetables and cereal showed 20% inflation. Increases are expected in such times, but not that high.

The government immediately established a rapid COVID-19 Response Committee to quickly solve inflation and to distribute medical equipment. Within two weeks, schools were closed and working hours for government employees went from eight hours a day to six, with occasional days off and even whole weeks off.

Initially, COVID-19 tests were administered at Bole airport after passengers arrived in Addis. That was how the first two cases were found. Testing was limited to the airport because it was thought that the only gateway for the virus was through air travel from countries that were already infected. A month after the first case was found, COVID-19 testing began in border areas, especially at the Djibouti-Ethiopian border where many cases were found.

At the beginning, patients were admitted to Eka COVID-19 Hospital, which the Ministry of Health dedicated exclusively to COVID-19 cases. Later, Millennium Hall, the country’s largest public gathering place, was converted into a Covid center holding more than 1000 beds and an ICU with 10 mechanical ventilators.  (Fascinating to many, the country had only 400 mechanical ventilators in total.) It is worth remembering that Ethiopia ranked 99 out of 103 on the UNDP Human Poverty Index. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s poorest states, with 45% of its 77 million people living below the poverty line. Hence, the only way the country could handle the crisis was through prevention.

I believe that it is fair to conclude that the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) did an immense job in the health education and promotion, both in cities and rural areas in the country. Other health organizations also helped in educating people to prevent the disease. For example, the Oromia Physician Association (OPA) regularly held rallies (with social distancing) and other events to educate the people, especially those in the countryside, about how to prevent COVID-19 especially in Oromia, the largest region of the country where Addis Ababa, the capital city is located. In other parts of the country many public actors such as educators and influential people urged the people to take seriously the measures to prevent the disease.

People Crossing the Roads in Addis Ababa

The rapid response committee that was set up by the Prime Minister’s office soon established rules and restrictions that were supposed to be implemented by the police. Following the restrictions, all public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Nightclubs and public entertainment places were shut down (with religious people making an obvious commentary on this restriction  as being ‘God’s hand’). Masks were mandatory outside of the house or there would be punishment. Religious gatherings were also prohibited. Mosques and churches were closed. Even the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the largest denomination in Ethiopia with over 40 million members, shut its cathedral in fear of the pandemic.

Knowing the rules and regulations alone would not affect the population, many artists also gathered to make videos and music to teach people to prevent the virus and to stay at home. Religious singers also sang and taught people to stay at home. This is done mainly in Amharic language, the official Federal language of Ethiopia. But government officials, artists and other popular figures also regularly presented on television and on different media in Oromo and other languages to educate the people about the pandemic.

The COVID-19 response team also managed and oversaw any unfair increase in the value of goods, especially in the city. The government was able to collect donations from local and international charity organizations. Religious ministries and parachurch organizations were able to collect cash and goods from their respective members and distribute them to the most vulnerable people and groups who were severely affected by the pandemic.

While the health promotion and education was carried out by many public actors, as mentioned above, the country’s less than twenty thousand physicians were being trained online by the Ministry of Health in Covid Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) and clinical management of Covid cases. As the disease progressed, every region set up its own Covid center. For a better description of the effects of COVID-19 from a medical perspective, I will use figures related to COVID-19 cases during the initial months and in various places. Bear with me.

On Sunday April 5, 2020, 23 days after the first case was announced, Dr. Lia announced the first Covid related deaths in the country. At that time Ethiopia’s testing was limited to travellers passing through Bole airport. Hence, almost all of the reported cases had a travel history to or from a country that had high Covid cases. Very few cases had no travel history. By the end of April there had been 105 new cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 131. The death toll was 3. The number of recovered patients increased to 59, leaving 69 active cases.2All covid-19 related data are taken from (accessed on June 7, 2021)

This was very low compared to other countries at that time. For example, in neighboring Kenya, the number of confirmed cases had reached 396 by the end of April. There had been 17 fatalities while 144 patients had recovered, leaving 235 active cases at the end of the month. One thing to note here is that there wasn’t a significant testing difference between Ethiopia and Kenya at that point.

Ethiopia has the third busiest airport in Africa, with around 6 million passengers in 2020 alone, followed by Egypt and South Africa who registered 5,537 and 5,647 total Covid cases respectively at the end of April 2020. One can say Ethiopia did a very good job in preventing the disease during this phase of the pandemic. However, the testing abilities of both Egypt and South Africa were far better than Ethiopia during this time.

For most of 2020, the medical burden of the pandemic was not as huge as was expected. At the end of December 2020, the total number of confirmed cases reached 124,264. The death toll rose to 1,923. The number of recovered patients increased to 112,096, leaving 10,245 active cases at the end of the month. Ethiopia’s testing ability had also grown to 7000 people daily. In total, 1.8 million people were tested by the end of December 2020.

10, 245 active cases were managed both at Addis Ababa’s largest Covid center at Millennium hall and Eka Hospital and also at regional hospitals. Private hospitals also offered Covid treatment with a cost that was 100 times higher than the government hospitals. For example, patients who were treated at Hallelujah Hospital, a well-known private hospital in Addis Ababa, were asked for as much as 200,000 ETB (around $5,000) for their hospital stay, while government hospitals charged not more than 1,000 ETB ($25) in total. Since the country follows a mixed economic system, private hospitals are free to charge any amount.

Following the ‘low’ infection progress of the disease, schools and universities were re-opened in October and November 2020. Life ‘after’ COVID-19 seemed to be underway. Government employees’ working hours were back to normal by early September. Many restrictions that were imposed by the COVID-19 Response Committee were lifted. Masks became non-mandatory and even government officials stopped wearing masks at gatherings.

Public gatherings with more than 50 people were allowed once again. Churches and Mosques were opened. Theatres and cinemas returned to their ‘normal’ state. Nightclubs and other restricted entertainment places opened up again. To many, it seemed that Covid was just flu. Life continued.

2021: What’s New?

The infection was expected to follow a similar course in 2021. At the beginning of 2021, this seemed to be the case, with an average of 400 daily cases out of an average 5000 people tested. The number of new cases in January 2021 (13,386) was a little less than in December 2020 (14,190). However, from February to April 2021, the number of cases and COVID-19 related deaths peaked.

The table below summarizes the total COVID-19 cases and deaths from February to May 2021.

From February to May 2021, the average daily testing was around 5,000 people with daily cases on average 1,500 to 2000 people. The graph seems to go down once again in the month of May, returning to January levels.

At the time of writing of this article (June 2021), the average daily testing was nearly the same (5,000 to 6,000) and daily recorded COVID-19 cases were between 300 and 500.

Vaccination Campaigns

On March 13, 2021, Ethiopia launched a COVID-19 vaccination campaign.3WHO Africa, 2020. (accessed on June 7, 2021) The Ministry of Health launched the COVID-19 vaccine drive in a high-level national event held at Eka Kotebe COVID-19 Hospital where frontline health workers were vaccinated to mark the beginning of the vaccination campaign. Following this, health professionals, government officials and influential people received the vaccine.

[i] WHO Africa, 2020. (accessed on June 7, 2021)

View of Addis Ababa from Mount. Entoto

The AstraZeneca vaccine produced by Serum Institute of India (SII) arrived in Ethiopia on March 6, 2021, through COVAX, which facilitated the procurement and shipment of the vaccines. It has been said that in total 7.62 million doses will be shipped to Ethiopia.

China also donated over 300,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Sinopharm to Ethiopia. It has been said that China has been donating vaccines to 80 developing countries in urgent need, and has provided support under the COVAX global vaccine-sharing scheme.

The AstraZeneca vaccines were distributed to every region in the country since they arrived in huge numbers as compared to China’s Sinopharm. Although different studies surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine say different things, the WHO has been recommending it. Hence, the Ministry of Health did not ban the vaccine from the country.

The physicians and medical students at Tikur Anbessa Hospital were among the first groups in the country to take the vaccine. There was a fear as to how our bodies would react to the vaccine, due to a few people getting very sick after getting vaccinated. Myalgia (muscle pain), headache and other side effects were expected. However, thankfully we didn’t encounter severe reactions.

In fact the huge challenge to the vaccination campaign did not come from medical studies related to the COVAX vaccines, but rather it originated in religious beliefs and conspiracy theories. Some believed that the vaccines had microchips inside of them which were thought to implant ‘the mark of the beast’. Other conspiracies include the belief that the vaccines were to be used by the West to enslave black people. Some are still saying that the vaccines were intended to limit the number of black people by causing infertility.

Challenges to Full Scale Prevention and Control of the Pandemic

Of course, since March 13, 2020, when the first positive case was announced, the pandemic has not been without its challenges. We can group the challenges faced in Ethiopia into three categories: the first is related to material and logistical issues. The second is related to the government’s implementation of the rules and restrictions set by the COVID-19 Response Committee. The third is related to popular beliefs and practices.

With regards to the first challenge, as described earlier, Ethiopia is ranked among the countries with the worst medical resources. The country does not have the equipment to handle its 115 million citizens, who make it the second most populous country in Africa. The effect of this challenge was seen especially recently (Feb-April 2021) when there was a surge in COVID-19 cases. Critically ill patients were beyond the capabilities of the government hospitals and ICUs. Most patients couldn’t afford to be treated in private hospitals; hence, sadly the critically ill were left without help. Many deaths recorded in those three months have been attributed to this factor.

Secondly, the government’s implementation of the COVID-19 related restrictions and laws did not have an entirely positive impact. For example, only a few months after the first COVID-19 cases were announced, the government postponed the election that was to take place in June 2020. This created huge doubts and concerns—especially among those in the countryside—that the disease was fabricated by the government so as to postpone the elections. This became a popular belief in rural areas especially in the Oromia region where a huge contest in the election was expected. On the other hand, the government also fell into the trap of immature and unscientific research, when it claimed through its Ministry of Science and Innovation that they had discovered the cure for COVID-19.4Ethiopia announced that it found traditional medicine for covid 19. Capital News. (2020, March 27) (accessed on June 7, 2021) This was televised on national television channels and the people received the news gladly. However, the government couldn’t handle its findings leaving the people to take the ‘innovations’ as nothing more than a hoax. The other problem was that government officials themselves did not set good examples to their people with regards to keeping social distance and wearing masks. A photo of Takele Uma, the State Minister of Energy and Mines, went viral on social media. In the photograph, Takele Uma was the only person not wearing a mask, alongside five, mostly foreign nationals, who were all wearing masks. Other ministers and regional presidents appeared publicly without a mask or even held party rallies or meetings without social distancing measures.

Thirdly, popular beliefs, originating in religion or myths, were also a hindrance to the collective effort of fighting against the pandemic. For example, in the earliest days most people believed that covid-19 was God’s punishment and if we returned to God the virus would disappear. The government gave free airtime to religious programs on national television every day. This is not just a spiritual explanation to a natural phenomenon, it was a spiritual solution to a natural phenomenon meaning that rather than believing in the preventive measures, people drew conclusions that religious dedications or other means would cure or keep the virus away. Incense was burnt on the streets and their smoke was delivered from trucks all over the city by Ethiopian Orthodox Church followers. Some protestant ministers especially those who claimed to be ‘faith healers’ sold ointments that would keep the virus away.  Not only religious beliefs but also traditional myths were propagated by many people. Some believed that white onions would keep the virus away which resulted in the value of white onions skyrocketing.

Further complicating the challenges were lower daily COVID-19 case numbers as compared to other countries. Everyone interpreted the lower cases and death rates in their own way. It is common to hear terms such as “government propaganda,” “God’s mercy,” and “God’s judgment” used to describe COVID-19.

The Non-Medical Side Effects of COVID-19 in Ethiopia

Alongside, or even more so than the medical burden, COVID-19 has affected the lives of Ethiopians in many other aspects. Just as it is true in many places around the world, COVID-19 affected Ethiopia in social, economic and political terms.

Impact on Social Life

Ethiopia is comprised of many ethno-linguistic groups most of whom can be described as having tight cultures. Mike Rainer, former Ambassador of the U.S.A to Ethiopia, described Northern Ethiopia’s culture as “uncompromising.” What he seems to be referring to is that societal ties and structures especially in Northern Ethiopia, which is dominated by Christians, do not easily welcome or adapt to the ‘foreign’ or the ‘strange’. The same is true for the Somali and other primarily Muslim cultures in Ethiopia who are characteristically described as having tight cultures.

When the telephone was introduced in Ethiopia in the early 20th century, people denounced it saying it was a means of talking with Satan. Anyone who was seen talking on the telephone, including the then Emperor, was seen as talking with Satan. It took some time for the laymen and women to be convinced that telephones were not instruments of the devil. This is just one example. Many of our stories speak to the fact that Ethiopians are not early-adopters of a new thing, nor do we easily change our old traditions for something new.

It is customary in Ethiopia, across its cultures, for people to hug one another when they greet. In some places, such as in Silte and Haddiyya, people hug more than three times in one greeting. While in the north they hug twice when they greet. Somalis and other Muslim cultures kiss each other’s hands. Touching one another during greeting is seen as honoring the other person.

COVID-19 came to break this culture with social distancing. This cultural change was not accepted, as was to be expected. With conspiracies acting as fuel, many people in the countryside refused to give up this custom. People continued to shake hands and kiss cheeks and hands even after social distancing was announced.

People waiting for bus in Addis Ababa
Photo by Medhanit A

Moreover, social distancing did not seem realistic on some occasions. Looking at the cases of the polygamous groups in our country, social distancing was perceived not only as unrealistic but also offensive. 11% of married women in Ethiopia are involved in polygamous marriages, meaning their husbands have more than one wife.5Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey, 2016. A polygamous father could have as many as 50 children all mostly living under one roof. How can social distancing be implemented in such scenarios? How could a father be distanced from his children, or siblings distanced from each other? This might seem an exaggerated case but it is very real and was often faced.

The case for the homeless is also another difficult sociological issue that was faced following the COVID-19 epidemic. There are more than 50,000 homeless people in Addis Ababa, most of whom are between the ages of 15 and 25.6International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies June 2015, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 42-50 ISSN: 2333-6021 (Print), 2333-603X (Online) Copyright © The Author(s). All Rights Reserved. Published by American Research Institute for Policy Development Their lives are based on the streets where they beg and sleep. With the lockdown, the fate of these people was in question. The city mayor had already planned to move the homeless young people into a sanctuary where they would get the chance to get educated and trained in order to find a job. Some of those who passed through the process were able to find a job. However, treating all 50,000 homeless individuals, whose numbers increased daily, was a huge task for a country that ranks among the poorest on earth.

Of all the groups that were affected by the pandemic, commercial sex workers based in Addis Ababa were the most severely affected. Prostitution is legal in Ethiopia and UNAIDS’s 2016 report revealed that there are around 19,000 commercial sex workers across major cities in Ethiopia, most of whom reside in Addis Ababa.7“Sex workers: Population size estimate (2016, November). UNAIDS.  (accessed on June 7, 2021) Following the pandemic many of those who work in prostitution lost their clients because of the lockdown. Charity groups, NGOs and FBOs were involved in reaching out to this population. However, since restrictions eased in September 2020, things seems to have returned to normal. At the time of writing this, the sex business in Addis Ababa is fully back with nightclubs, bars, restaurants and pensions once again fully functional.

The commercial sex business also received many additional workers, with the return of many citizens who had migrated to Saudi Arabia. The returnees had lost their jobs because of the pandemic and most of the women were forced to enter into the commercial sex trade.8Wuilbercq, E. (2021, March 3). Thomson Reuters Foundation. FEATURE-Ethiopia’s migrants turn to sex work as pandemic sends them home. (accessed on June 7, 2021)

It seems that, foreseeing the huge economic crisis that was about to occur in a country of 115 million inhabitants, many chose to believe conspiracies, myths, pseudoscience or their traditions rather than committing themselves to the measures of prevention and control. This paved the way for the wrongly held, ‘life after COVID-19’ belief.  The government’s mishandling of the issue also played an important role in aggravating this belief.

The Economic Impact

The other facet of the effect of Covid was economic. Ethiopia has been among the fastest growing countries in the world for the past decade. Even during the climax of the countrywide protests, Ethiopia maintained a growth rate of 7.7 as per the report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).9International Monetary Fund: The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: IMF Country Report No. 18/354 That seems to account for why the United Nations report on the impact of the pandemic on Ethiopia starts by acknowledging the country’s ability to maintain economic stability in spite of different challenges encountered over the years.10United Nations Ethiopia: One UN Assessment: Socio-Economic Impact of Covid-19 in Ethiopia. May 2020, Addis Ababa.

Practically speaking, the pandemic did hurt the country’s economy, and different groups were hit by the pandemic to different extents. The first days of the pandemic showed a marked increase in the value of goods. The Addis Ababa city government as well as the COVID-19 Response Committee tried to stabilize the inflation by taking several measures, the main one being  penalizing stores that unfairly increased prices.

Since the country follows a mixed economic model, the government had the mandate and the right to stabilize and set market values. This went in favor of the masses in most cases. During inflation seasons, the government intervenes to maintain the economy. Nonetheless, the government’s intervention does not reach all groups.

The government’s economic interventions mostly focus on the urban areas particularly Addis Ababa, which has the lion’s share of the country’s market. While Addis Ababa was getting the government’s help over unfair increases of necessary goods by some business owners, other cities and rural areas did not get the government’s help immediately. This was because Addis Ababa took all the attention in the country because of the high rate of COVID-19 cases compared to other towns, with the exception of Dire Dawa, which had also displayed a higher infection rate due to migrants returning home from the nearby Djibouti city.

Even in Addis Ababa, not all groups were affected by the pandemic similarly. While the government tried to maintain the economy for working class citizens, the jobless, immigrants and other businesses such as the commercial sex business and entertainment businesses were also highly affected.  In order to maintain employment levels, the government’s COVID-19 Response Committee passed a regulation that prevented business owners from firing any of their employees until the COVID-19 State of Emergency was lifted. The State of Emergency (SOE), overseen by the COVID-19 Response Committee, lasted from April to August, totaling five months. This helped citizens working for private companies. The regulations also included the prohibition of rent increases and evictions until the end of the SOE.

In the meantime, Ethiopia faced not only the pandemic in 2020 but also a desert locus invasion. The locust invasion has been the worst in 25 years, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It damaged an estimated 200,000 hectares (490,000 acres) of land between January and October 2020, threatening food supplies. To better understand the significance, a single square-kilometer swarm can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people.

It was no less than a miracle to read the World Bank’s report on Ethiopia’s real gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which had slowed down to 6.1% in 2019/20 due to the pandemic. However, the country was still among the top growing economies in Africa and in the world. The World Bank’s account states that industry, mainly construction, and services accounted for most of the growth. In the meantime agriculture was not affected by the pandemic and, astoundingly enough, its contribution to growth slightly improved in 2019/20 compared to the previous year.

At the time of this writing, the value of some goods have increased, or in some instances doubled, compared to just over a year ago. For example, one pack of pasta was 20 Birr when the pandemic began and for most of 2020. However, now it costs 41 Birr in Addis Ababa market. The recent rise in the value of goods can be attributed to many factors including the devaluation of the country’s currency which caused the value of imported products to increase. A year ago $1 was worth 35 Birr, but now it is around 43 Birr. Another reason for the recent increase in the value of goods is the ongoing war in Tigray and the conflicts that are happening in different parts of the country. IMF’s analysis seems also to side with this.11International Monetary Fund: The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: IMF Country Report No. 18/354

More or less, Ethiopia tried to maintain its economy amidst difficult situations with the pandemic, the desert locust plague and the humanitarian crisis that is happening in the country following different conflicts, including the Tigray war. No wonder the government has the power to dissect and heal the economy as well as control most of the aspects of the livelihood of its citizens. This leads us to the final impact of the pandemic on Ethiopians.

Impact on Politics

COVID-19 has been the most politically abused disease. The political issues relating to the disease have been manifesting in many distinct ways. From the controversial international tension between China and the rest of the developed world, particularly the U.S.A, to the ways in which national and local politics in almost every country have been both affected by the pandemic and used it to fulfill political agendas.

Ethiopia was no different. In August 29, 2020, Ethiopia had planned to conduct its sixth  national and regional election. It was the most anticipated event in the country, which according to Jawar Mohammed, the politician turned media guru, could make or break the country. Jawar’s analysis could be an underestimation of the situation that would follow the election.  At this stage it would be necessary to give a little background on the recent political climate of the country before the pandemic.

Covid-19 safety billboard in front of a condominium in Addis Ababa
Photo by Medhanit A

In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, rose to power through popular struggle that forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to resign.  Abiy Ahmed represented the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Oromo faction of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary and Democratic Front (EPRDF).

After he came to power Abiy Ahmed made huge promises, most of which were fulfilled by him or his administration subsequently. He released imprisoned political figures. He allowed exiled political parties and figures to return to the country. Most of all, he vowed to undergo a free and fair election.

Ethiopia has seen five national elections since the downfall of the military junta in 1991. All five elections were described as not credible, free or fair by the participants. The most notable being the 2005 election in which it was concluded that the ruling party EPRDF, committed voter fraud. The Coalition for Unity and Democracy party (CUD, ‘Kinijit’ in Amharic) won the election in the capital by a large margin, but the ruling party was not willing to give up power. Hence, some leaders were thrown in jail while others were exiled.

Abiy Ahmed vowed to reverse this history by preparing a free and fair election in 2020. Many political parties including the Ethiopian Citizen’s Social Justice Party (EZEMA), the National Movement of the Amhara (NAMA), the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Prosperity Party (the reformed ‘EPRDF’) were making preparations for the elections.

However, Abiy Ahmed faced huge challenges ahead of the election. The first was from his constituency, the Oromo people, because of other competing political parties who were thought to be on track to comfortably win the election, while Abiy’s reformed ‘Prosperity Party’ did not seem to be favored by the Oromo people. Secondly, the TPLF were also preparing to make a comeback using a loophole after they were pushed from power following the ascension of Abiy Ahmed into the premiership. Thirdly, the rise of the Amhara nationalist parties such as the NAMA, increased the tension between the Amhara and the Oromo, the two largest ethnic groups in the country. Fourthly, Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) was immature and not well established and clearly needed some time until a true ideological unity was formed. All these challenges made the sixth national election highly anticipated on one hand, and haphazard on the other.

After the first COVID-19 case was announced on March 13, 2020, political parties were warning of a possible postponement of the election if necessary preventive measures were not taken. The government on the other hand, weighed up the necessity of taking preventive measures rather than focusing on the election. However, the issue of postponing the election was not an easy matter. The country did not have a history of postponing national polls. Moreover, the constitution said nothing regarding the authority and assumption of the governing body in the period between the original election date and the date to which it was postponed.

Hence, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) was established by the House of People’s Representatives (HPR). The Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) is a body of legal experts the HPR established to make recommendations on constitutional interpretation requests to the lower chamber of parliament, the House of Federation (HoF). The CCI made an unprecedented public announcement on May 11, inviting qualified experts to submit to the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR) written opinions regarding the interpretation of Article 54(1), Article 58 (3) and Article 93 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE Constitution), in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the scheduled national election. Accordingly, many legal experts submitted their amicus curiae.12Kidanemariam, Mulu & Ghebregergs, Mehreteab & Hadush, Gebrehiwot & Hailu, Gebremeskel & Messele, Abraha & Weldeselassie, Gebreabeggi. (2020). Amicus Curiae on Election, COVID-19, and Constitutional Interpretation in Ethiopia (May 15, 2020).

The submitted papers were presented to the CCI during a live broadcast. Different arguments were presented in the available time. However, with the election certainly postponed, none of the papers in support of an interim or transitional government ‘convinced’ the CCI. Hence, in May the sitting House of Representatives voted to postpone the election until 2021 and the House of Federation allowed the ruling government to continue in power until then.

The ramifications of this decision is a huge topic of study on its own. As of the time of writing, the consequences of that decision is still not fully understood. Many political figures that were getting ready for the election a year ago including Jawar Mohammed and Eskendir Nega are now behind bars. The election is not as excitedly anticipated as it was a year ago.

A billboard in Minnesota, USA, reads ‘Free Jawar Mohammed’

Meanwhile, it is also worth noting that Ethiopia was not the only country whose election was affected. According to IDEA, from February 2020 to June 2021 at least 78 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID-19, out of which at least 41 countries and territories have decided to postpone national elections and referendums, Ethiopia included. Hence, Ethiopia’s case is not unique.

Despite the COVID-19 health education by the Ministry of Health, both the ruling party and other competing parties have held rallies and mass gatherings without the necessary COVID-19 protective measures. It seems Ethiopia has passed the COVID-19 season, living in a ‘post-pandemic’ state, although medical and other ongoing effects of the pandemic say otherwise.

Naol Befkadu, MD, is a physician based in Addis Ababa.

[1] Wuilbercq, E. (2020, May 4). Q&A: How Ethiopia’s health minister is preparing for coronavirus. Thomson Reuters Foundation. (accessed on June 7, 2021)

[2] All covid-19 related data are taken from (accessed on June 7, 2021)

[3] WHO Africa, 2020. (accessed on June 7, 2021)

[4] Ethiopia announced that it found traditional medicine for covid 19. Capital News. (2020, March 27) (accessed on June 7, 2021)

[5] Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey, 2016.

[6] International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies June 2015, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 42-50 ISSN: 2333-6021 (Print), 2333-603X (Online) Copyright © The Author(s). All Rights Reserved. Published by American Research Institute for Policy Development

[7] “Sex workers: Population size estimate (2016, November). UNAIDS.  (accessed on June 7, 2021)

[8] Wuilbercq, E. (2021, March 3). Thomson Reuters Foundation. FEATURE-Ethiopia’s migrants turn to sex work as pandemic sends them home. (accessed on June 7, 2021)

[9] International Monetary Fund: The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: IMF Country Report No. 18/354

[10] United Nations Ethiopia: One UN Assessment: Socio-Economic Impact of Covid-19 in Ethiopia. May 2020, Addis Ababa.

[11] International Monetary Fund: The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: IMF Country Report No. 18/354

[12] Kidanemariam, Mulu & Ghebregergs, Mehreteab & Hadush, Gebrehiwot & Hailu, Gebremeskel & Messele, Abraha & Weldeselassie, Gebreabeggi. (2020). Amicus Curiae on Election, COVID-19, and Constitutional Interpretation in Ethiopia (May 15, 2020).

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Astrobus Ethiopia 2021


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