Viewpoint by Teshome Toga Chanaka
This is the second of a two-part article by Teshome Toga Chanaka, currently Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ethiopia to China. Click here for Part 1. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the government and IDN, the flagship of non-profit International Press Syndicate.
BEIJING (IDN) – Can the Chinese experience be replicated elsewhere? No two social, economic, political and cultural settings are identical.
Given this reality the Chinese experience cannot be replicated in many countries. This, however, does not mean that there are no lessons that can be learnt, no experience that cannot be shared. Admittedly, there are plenty of lessons and skills that can be suitably adapted and could be put in use in different contexts.
The Unity of Purpose
The unity of purpose forged by the government, the people and the health workers and other organised groups and individuals is something worth emulating. Since the virus does not discriminate against any group and attacks all sectors of the society, regardless of colour, sex, political orientation, unity of purpose and sense of responsibility were critical in mitigating the effects of the virus. Responsible adherence to the guidelines and directives by the government and advice by the health professionals was a must. Failure in this regard would have bagged a heavy price.
Compared with China, locking down a city or remaining at home in many African countries may prove to be difficult as millions in Africa must go out and earn their living on a daily basis. In such a circumstance, the stay-home policy is simply a luxury. However, we can still play our part even if we cannot remain indoors, by strictly practising social and physical distancing and observing personal hygiene as much as possible, supported by using protective gears.
Sharing What We Have
The culture of sharing is not something we have to embrace anew because of COVID-19. It is a value ingrained in many societies throughout the world. That is why many philanthropists leave their homes and travel around the world to help the less fortunate ones.
Today COVID-19 has restricted the mobility of people beyond borders, and immediate neighbours and communities are the next available ones to help each other. Many cannot afford necessities that help protect themselves and their loved ones as well as their communities. For many, personal hygiene and protective gears are not readily available and affordable, particularly in developing countries.
Here comes the role of community or the concept of sharing. I am sure with our human greediness when fellow neighbours have no single mask to wear; there are many who hoard them and even to the extent not using. Those who do so, can also afford to remain home.
Therefore, sharing with those who do not have or cannot afford must be a value we all should practise in the fight against COVID-19. This is one lesson we can replicate to our circumstances. Again, PM Abiy imitated the concept of sharing a meal and set an example by taking the lead with the First Lady, leading by example.
Lessons for Ethiopia from China
I would like to contextualise Ethiopia‘s response in light of the above. The government of Ethiopia followed the spread of the virus since it first invaded Wuhan. Ethiopia stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the government and people of China at this challenging time. As Ethiopia‘s interaction with China continued, the concerned institutions began preparation for any eventuality by way of protecting and controlling the spread of the virus.
The Ministry of Health and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute began preparation as early as they could. One was building the diagnostic and testing capacity and the capacity to treat those found positive. In line with this, the institutions worked to create awareness about the virus, screen travellers at airports, prepare medical and isolation centres and train medical personnel. The capacity is steadily being built but not yet reached to the required level.
As experience from China shows, the critical measure for countries like Ethiopia and many in Africa, I believe, is to focus on protection. The role of the public is critically vital. Therefore, awareness creation among the general public through media is being done in greater -scale now. As the cases increased recently, the government took additional measures led by the Council of Ministers. Moreover, national task force has been established at ministerial level to coordinate national and regional interventions. Several other sub-task forces have also been formed; and like a task force for national resources mobilisation is also put in place.
Ethiopia also closed its land borders in its effort to contain the spread of the virus. Fourteen days mandatory quarantine has also been introduced on all arrivals. Non-essential public service workers are ordered to work from home. Social events, business and religious gatherings are being suspended through their institutional mechanisms.
Given the grave implications of the COVID-19, PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) also launched global solidarity in support of African countries. These are some of the major steps the government of Ethiopia has taken under the leadership of PM Abiy. These are not easy measures for countries like Ethiopia. We are forced to choose the lesser evil.
The target is to contain it at its early stage before it gets out of hand. Recently, the Council of Ministers was compelled to declare a state of emergency to intensify the national effort. As a behavioural change for a society with embedded communal value, to learn a new value imposed by the pandemic is not easy. However, when it is a life or death matter, the choice is obvious. Our survival instinct if not anything else, should persuade us to learn new habits.
The significant challenges and difficulties Ethiopia and many African countries facing are similar. The nature of the virus is a challenge by itself. It does not stop at borders; it affects all humanity regardless of race, religion, colour, gender, geography. It is the challenge of a global scale. It is pushing the limits of the wealthiest nations.
Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine the threat the virus poses on weak economies, with fragile health systems and infrastructures like Ethiopia and many other African countries. The mother of all challenges is how to protect and save the lives of 110 million Ethiopians. Ethiopia‘s national capability to respond adequately to the fight against COVID-19 is a number one challenge. The capacity to diagnose, test and treat, isolate and quarantine are not easy measures.
The second and most crucial challenge is the economic and social challenge. Weak economies like ours will be hit hard. Short- and long-term strategies are needed. The national, regional global coordination and solidarity appears to be a serious challenge. As there is colossal tendency to move unilaterally and act within national borders, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is taking several initiatives to mobilize the badly needed global strategy and support.
There are some positive responses, but those who could have made a big difference have not yet embraced the global coalition. The coalition of the willing should emerge and I think, Africa as the most vulnerable continent should take the driver’s seat. The effort of the Prime Minister, in this regard is commendable and needs the support of others. If not there, regret will follow, and history will judge this generation of leaders harshly.
The African Situation
Indeed, the new coronavirus cases in Africa are increasing. From what we observed in China, the coming two to three weeks are extremely critical. Protection and containing at the early stage are very decisive. At least, we have experience to learn from countries like China. Africans can use them by adjusting to their own specific situations. The current low cases should not lead to complacency.
It is good that the African Centre for Disease Control (CDC) is coordinating continental efforts and setting guidelines based on the general guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO). As PM Abiy said, Africa cannot win this battle alone. Nor can others win the battle alone. Therefore, pan-African solidarity is of paramount importance. Again, PM Abiy launched an initiative with Jack Ma Foundation and mobilized the batches of continent-wide donation for diagnostic kits and protective gears to all 54 African Union member states.
Since March 22, 2020, Ethiopian Airlines is forwarding the donations to all African capitals. This is one good example of continental and global solidarity. In the same manner, PM Abiy has made an appeal to G7 and G20 countries for financial interventions without which the weak African economies will easily collapse. This is not only in Africa‘s interest. By saving the continent’s economy and social fabric, the global community will also benefit. Time is of the utmost essence.
China and Ethiopia have had coordination since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan. As the two countries have the highest level of cooperation, a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, Ethiopia stood on the Chinese side during this trying time. Ethiopian leaders sent messages of solidarity and support to Chinese counterparts. PM Abiy and President Xi had a comprehensive telephone conversation on the challenges and consequences of COVID-19.
President Xi expressed gratitude and appreciation to the government and peoples of Ethiopia for their unreserved support to China. The President of Ethiopia Sahlework Zewdie and PM Abiy also expressed their trust and confidence in the leadership of China and its capability to protect and control the virus.
The Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, Gedu Andargachew, also wrote to his Chinese counterpart, State Councillor Wang Yi. Ethiopian students in Wuhan and in China, the Ethiopian community members and Ethiopian diplomatic missions in China also demonstrated their strong commitment and support to China during the fight against COVID-19.
Ethiopian Airlines, the largest aviation group in Africa, in line with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Air Transport Association (IATA) and WHO guidelines never suspended its operation to its five destinations in China. These are practical and countable measures ofsolidarity.
The Role of China
I have personally witnessed the national fight waged by China and the national coordination from the centre to the grassroots level. President Xi at the beginning of the spread of the virus stated confidently that the government of China has the commitment, capability and determination to overcome the challenge.
Literally all the Chinese joined hands in a sense of national pride, marked by patriotism and human solidarity. The medical experts on the frontline were in a fighting mood and certainty went beyond their call of duty. They sacrificed their precious lives to save the lives of their fellow citizens and other human beings. They acted bravely and decisively. Backed by the government, the health workers, the Chinese people, the media and all other sectors of the society, have shown to the world the way to protect and control such a national challenge.
Now China with its own fight still at hand, is extending support globally by sending health professionals to share experience, donating medical supplies and also contributing to global system by donating to WHO. China is taking the global fight seriously and understands very well that victory can only be claimed if COVID19 is defeated globally. No country can claim unilateral victory over it.
China, after almost brinigng the virus under control, in turn, is extending its solidarity to its friends like Ethiopia by sharing its experience and by also donating medical supplies. Ethiopia is among the first three African countries to benefit from the generous support of China.
China understood very well the need for global solidarity, coordination and support if the positive results in China could be sustained. Many private sectors in China including Jack Ma Foundation, the HUAJIAN Group and others have already delivered donations to Ethiopia. Others are in the pipeline and Ethiopian task force in China is coordinating these efforts. Both China and Ethiopia value the significance of joint actions and collective efforts.
Global Cooperation and Coalition
Global cooperation and global strategy are absolutely necessary. We have a global institution, WHO, to coordinate and work with. WHO has an enormous experience and resources. As PM Abiy clearly stated in his recent article published by Financial Times, let us empower WHO, let us provide the necessary resource and financial support to the organization. However, the current attack and discrediting of the Organization is in no one’s interest. No international institution is perfect. Nor does WHO claim to be one.
Now is not the time to scrutinize the institution. Now is the time to work and build on its strength. As a learning institution, WHO can learn from its daily operation and redress some of its failures here and there. If the organization in this crisis management, has failed, the members will have to hold those accountable as the fight against the plague is concluded.
There is no need to reinvent a wheel. WHO has regional and national offices in all member states and better qualified to lead the global response. It is time for a more concerted and coordinated global effort. National efforts alone would not suffice.
International cooperation and partnership at a global scale is a must when fighting the coronavirus pandemic and China, as country first exposed to the virus, can play a leading role in this action. No single county, big or small, rich or poor, South or North can win this battle on its own because the virus does not know any borders. The recently imported coronavirus cases to China, in the wake of its control of the virus locally, clearly indicate the imperative of collective action and coordination. Governments need coordination at policy level.
China‘s engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries is a good example of regional cooperation and this can be scaled up to engage different regional arrangements in Africa and elsewhere.
Xenophobia and Discrimination
People should understand that pandemics have broken out in the past and they will in the future. Virus affects all humanity. Therefore, to attach the virus to the citizens where the virus broke out is wrong. Such perceptions are based on wrong assumptioms. The leaders at all levels and the ordinary people should fight equally the stigma, xenophobia and discrimination wherever it occurs.
We are all human beings. In this interconnected world we can either swim together or sink together. Let us stop any signs of discrimination in relations to the virus. We need to think rationally, and act based on evidence. It is wrong to be friends in times of sunshine and to run away when it rains. Human beings should support, care and love each other at times of challenges and also celebrate victory together. Together, we can win the fight against COVID 19 and celebrate victory soon. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 19 2020]
Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who was in Beijing for the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, at the Great Hall of the People on April 24, 2019. Credit: Xinhua/Ding Lin.
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