Busy African airport’s masked staff watch out for coronavirus

Addis Ababa is major hub for China but Ethiopian Airlines refuses to cancel flights

Face masks are everywhere in Bole International Airport, in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Friends lift them to talk to each other; children wear them while sleeping on their parents' laps; staff checking passports or dealing with customer complaints have masks in place at all times.

"We have many people coming from China [here]," said one passenger on Friday morning, as he waited for an onward flight. While he wasn't too concerned, he said it is good to be careful.

The airport is a key transit centre for Africa's biggest airline, Ethiopian Airlines, which is coming under increasing pressure for refusing to reduce flights to and from China, as other airlines on the continent have done. Every week hundreds of people arrive from China at Addis Ababa, before flying on to other African countries.

"Ethiopian Airlines serves countries in good and bad times," Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde Gebremariam told local media in Ethiopia, as reported by the Washington Post. "China has a strong trade and investment relationship with Africa, and Ethiopian Airlines is the major carrier that links China with many African countries. If we stop flights to China, we break that relationship."


‘Weaker health systems’

There are an estimated one million Chinese people living across the African continent, while about 4,600 African students were studying in Hubei province, China, where the coronavirus outbreak started.

Speaking at the end of January, when the coronavirus was declared a global health emergency, the Ethiopian head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the declaration was made because of concern about countries less capable of dealing with outbreaks than China. "Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems," explained Ghebreyesus.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has joined appeals for Ethiopian Airlines to address the coronavirus threat. “We are doing everything to keep the virus away,” he said. “It has nothing to do with our relationship with any country, it’s about protecting our people from the risk of infection.”

Despite flights continuing, Ethiopian Airlines crew now wear masks and gloves on intra-African flights, as well as in the airport in Addis Ababa.

“It’s for precaution,” one masked staff member told The Irish Times. “Currently we haven’t heard of any cases in Ethiopia but just to be safe.”

Extra screening

Other African countries are implementing border checks. In Entebbe airport, Uganda, on Friday morning, officials appeared to be pulling Asian people to one side for extra screening.

Coronavirus, which is now officially called the Covid-19 infection, has infected more than 64,000 people globally, and the death toll is approaching 1,400. There are still no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Africa, though experts say the resources to test for it are limited, and a positive case seems just a matter of time.

"This disease is a serious threat to the social dynamics, economic growth and security of Africa," said John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which has set up a new task force. "If we do not detect and contain disease outbreaks early, we cannot achieve our developmental goals."

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa