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As coronavirus pressure grows, Africa’s biggest airline is starting to cut back its China flights

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max (ET-AVM), the same type of aircraft that crashed in Ethiopia on 10 March 2019, is seen at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when it was first delivered to Ethiopia on 02 July 2018 (issued 10 March 2019). Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 en route to Nairobi, Kenya, crashed near Bishoftu, some 50km outside of the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 10 March 2019. All passengers onboard the scheduled flight ET 302 carrying 149 passengers and 8 crew members, have died, the airlines says. Ethiopian Airlines plane en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi crashed, Ethiopia - 02 Jul 2018
Crucial days ahead.
  • Ciku Kimeria
By Ciku Kimeria

I tell African stories

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

*Updated with comments from Ethiopian Airlines executive

Globally, coronavirus has claimed 725 lives with almost all deaths occurring in mainland China. The disease has also been detected in 24 other countries, most times involving people who traveled to China. While to date there have been no confirmed cases in Africa, the risk of an outbreak remains high.

Amidst rising criticism of Ethiopian Airlines’ continued flights to and from China, the airline has cut down its February weekly flights from Addis to Beijing, Chengdu, Guanzhou and Shanghai by 33%. It has also changed its aircrafts on the Addis to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai routes from Boeing 777 and A350 to Boeing 787-8 resulting in a 20%-45% change in capacity on the different flights.

This will be seen as a welcome change given the cancellations of flights to China by other African carriers inclduing
Kenya Airways and Rwandair. Even Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta took the unusual step of urging Ethiopian Airlines to cancel all flights as other airlines stating, “Our worry as a country is not that China cannot manage the disease. Our biggest worry is diseases coming into areas with weaker health systems like ours.”

But this reduction in number of Ethiopian flights and flight capacity might not however be enough to avoid what could be a looming crisis. And many cynics will believe it is more in response to a drop-off in China traffic than safety precautions.

Over the last decade Ethiopian Airlines has become the leading carrier for Africans and others to more destinations on the continent than any other airline. Addis Ababa’s Bole International has also become the primary gateway into Africa because of Ethiopian’s expansion.  The airline has the highest number of flights between China and Africa.

Critics at home and abroad believe the Ethiopian government has been reluctant to curtail its Ethiopian Airlines flights to avoid a falling out with the Chinese government due to the deep economic and political ties between both countries. Like China, Ethiopia has a centralized one-party led government with a tight control over the economy.

Ethiopian’s top executive Tewolde Gebremariam told reporters on Saturday the company has no intention of stopping all flights. “It will not be morally acceptable to stop flying to China today because they’ve a temporary problem,” Tewolde said, according to Kalkidan Yibeltal, a BBC  reporter in Addis Ababa who shared the comments on Twitter. “We stand with our Chinese brothers and sisters.”

Skeptics of the continent’s preparedness to address a pandemic such as coronavirus have good reasons for their doubts. WHO said this week it is scaling up preparedness in 13 top priority African countries, including Ethiopia. As of Thursday, only six labs on the continent can actually test for coronavirus.  WHO convened medical teams from 15 African nations for an emergency workshop that will equip them with the knowhow and materials needed to test for the novel coronavirus, by the end of this coming week.

With the continued flights between Addis and various cities in China, the airport screening while useful, is a stop-gap at best. According to the US government’s Center for Disease Control, the virus has a two to 14-day incubation period in which some patients may have little to no symptoms. Public health watchers say the question is no longer if Coronavirus will get to the continent, but when.

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