The Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic is presenting Ethiopia with an unprecedented and a complex adaptive challenge. Not only will it cause massive infections that may overwhelm or crush the country’s weak health system, it can also batter the national economy. Job and income losses emanating from the service sector, iconic companies like Ethiopian Airlines or small and medium enterprise at their embryonic stage could have on knock-on effect on the country’s poverty reduction effort. The social and psychological costs resulting from the pandemic will soar. These feed into each other severely restricting resilience and recovery. Clearly, human lives and their livelihoods are at stake.
Some say at the moment infections are related to those who have been abroad and Ethiopia should really start worrying once locally transmitted (community) infections or outbreaks occur. They also argue that the government can adopt measures taken by the likes of China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), Singapore and the Republic of Korea to prevent and control it. Even the government’s contingency plan is based on stylized facts generated about the virus from the Ethiopian Pubic Health Institute, which says 80 percent of the population can self-recover without needing medical intervention, 15 percent can easily be treated and only five percent would need intensive care.
However, these ignore the high interconnectedness of the contemporary world facilitated not only by formal engagement of the nation, but also the country’s porous borders that allows contrabandists, human traffickers, and weapon smugglers to infiltrate the hinterland and get the virus where it was not imagined. Therefore, there are simply too many holes that the government will find difficult to fill. So, it may be able to slow the transmission of the virus into the country but not for too long.
To make matters worse, once the virus spreads locally, the family structure and housing conditions with overcrowdings, water supply availability situation and sanitation practices, communal tradition and culture will work together to conspire in further spreading the infection at an alarming rate. In addition, since the activities and behavior of the virus in different climates and setting is not fully understood it may be that those that were thought immune or can quickly recover might succumb into the disease. With severely limited human resources, kits, and other facilities, the health sector could not cope with influx of patients.
Drastic and blanket measures like extended lock downs would prove ineffective and even counterproductive as the majority of people could not obey it as they work on their own account (self-employed) and would find it impossible to sustain themselves in those situations. With a tight fiscal situation (elevated macroeconomic imbalances), hundreds of thousands internally displaced persons, and rural and urban safety net programs already running to their brims the government would not be in a position to do much by way of large stimulus package providing financial transfers to families and individuals or tax relief and loan to businesses.
In this situation the country might find itself that there are too many moving parts to pay attention to and it is all happening too fast. It resembles complex problem solving scenarios.
As a simultaneously global and local phenomenon COVID-19 is a double whammy for Ethiopia. Unlike technical challenges where ready-made solution exists (like medicine or vaccine) or someone (a public health expert) has the answer or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), we have never solved such issue before. As a complex problem, solving COVID-19 is adaptive challenge. At the most basic level adaptive challenge is not having great power or much knowledge. It is about being responsive.
The lesson to be drawn from successful countries has been distilled as acting early, aggressively and intelligently. Considering our context (technical and resource constraint), it can also be solved by collaboration alone. Historical experience attests to this. During the European scramble for Africa, Ethiopia didn’t have a modern or professional army, sophisticated military hardware or organized logistics. Yet it prevailed over superior army. That was because its people responded to the call for action by bringing their problem solving skills and resources (rifles, food, etc.) to bear on the problem. But, such self-organizing processes need to catalyze. That’s why committed and effective leadership becomes critical.
Ed.’s Note: Shewangezaw Seyoum is a consultant and works at the Industrial Projects Service – a consultancy house under the Industrial Parks Development Corporation. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter or any other organization he is affiliated with. He can be reached at [email protected].