Surviving Covid-19 in Addis Ababa: income, technology, religion

By Abel Merawi

“People worry how many people may die of COVID-19, I worry about how many people could starve to death if this situation continues,” Mr. Tasewu Alebachewu explains.

Mr. Tasewu Alebachewu

As a teacher Mr. Tasewu understands the need for strict measures, but the father of two is fearful for his single-income family. “I don’t know if my family could survive the financial consequence,” he ponders. Fear for inflation led Mr. Tasewu to commit ‘panic shopping’, using the money he saved for emergency.

Ethiopians vividly remember March 13 as it marked the first domestic case of COVID-19 and introduced a strict 5-month state of emergency encompassing every aspect of social, religious and economic life.

In the capital city of Ethiopia and the African Union, life has become a juggling act balancing health and finance.

Before COVID-19, Mr. Tasewu tutored four children to double his 7.000 Birr (€ 175,-) monthly salary – “It used to cover all the necessary expenses for my family” – but since schools have been ordered to close and teacher-student contact prohibited Mr. Alebachewu is unable to tutor, and now depends solely on his teacher salary.

Mr. Tasewu desperately seeks additional income and is doubtful of the future: “I am at the mercy of God now. I have used up my savings, I don’t even know what I will do if someone in my family falls ill.”

Though understanding the benefits of PPE, he argues: “I am minimizing our consumptions to the basics – food and food only.”

“Buying sanitizers and masks is unrealistic, I don’t even know how we can continue eating once a day in the near future,” he adds.

To minimize the risk of infection, Mr. Tasewu’s children are not allowed outside, they all stay together in the two-bedroom apartment provided by the government.

“The only good things about being unable to work is that I am getting to know my children better, giving more time to my wife, which had strengthened our marriage.”

Providing a helping hand with the laundry and cleaning, he exclaims “I didn’t know my wife had all these things to do at home!”

Sadly Mr. Tasewu dreads to speak of the future, considering the worst possibilities he asks: “what if the government was unable to continue paying my salary? What if I still had to pay my rent?”

As great nations struggle to effectively handle this novel virus, it is hard to imagine the damage on developing countries like Ethiopia. The state of emergency includes banning any gathering of more than four people with 2 meters’ distance between each. Handshaking is also banned, while wearing masks or scarfs at public places is mandatory.

Until now the number of people with coronavirus has been low – as of May 27, Ethiopia has 731 coronavirus cases with 6 dead and 181 recovered – and people are disregarding the social restrictions.

The Ministry of Health claims that the impact can be observed at the end of June, when the rainy season begins, and this is not the time to relax.

Already 2,800 individuals in the capital city have been imprisoned for failure to comply with the restriction to gather, which is punishable with up to three-year imprisonment or with a fine between 1,000 birr (€ 27) and 200,000 birr (€ 5,400).

For establishments with ample space, the gathering restriction will not stand as a barrier. But for Aklilu Wolday‘s small liquor shop, even 3 customers constitute a crowd.

Aklilu Wolday

Aklilu decided to close down his liquor store on March 23, he says, “Currently, I only provide takeaway services, which means a loss of over than 75% of my income.”

“Most customers have stopped purchasing liquor since it is ‘non-essential, but some regular customers tried to persuade me to allow them to drink inside my shop, even offering extra money,” Aklilu tells, “they think the virus doesn’t affect blacks. I feared the consequences of this misconception and so I closed down my shop,” he adds.

\After graduating in Management Information System, Aklilu became a teacher and IT expert. But eventually he put his dreams aside to take over the small family business. In Ethiopia, family takes precedence over personal dreams. Aklilu’s savings, intended to start a fine art printing business in the future, dwindle by the day, and he had to let go of his part-time employee with advance payment.

In support of small businesses, the government took measures such as tax exemption, and Aklilu says, “Living in a developing country, I don’t expect additional support from the government.”

For the time being Wolday tries to generate more income by designing posters and delivering consumable goods.

To protect employees, terminating employment contracts is temporarily prohibited by law. Since most people live in rentals, landlords are banned from either evicting or increasing rents. But for a waiter who depends on tips, the financial impact is deeply felt.

Bayisa Jira

26-year-old Bayisa Jira earns his living serving in a bar and restaurant. Such places are common in residential areas, providing both indoor and outdoor service for family and friends.

“Apart from always wearing a mask, I thoroughly wash my hand with soap after each and every transaction,” he says.

But despite his careful behavior he remains concerned: “it is still risky as I encounter people from various walks of life.”

Bayisa rents a single room for himself and his younger brother, Girma. He pays rent with one-third of his salary. His 3,000 Birr (90€) salary is not enough to cover all expenses.

He says “Before COVID-19, the tips were enough to cover the rent and my salary was spent on provision. Not anymore.”

His proprietor understands his situation, but Bayisa’s rent constitutes the owner’s only source of income.

Bayisa’s parents live in the Bale Robe, Oromia Region in south-central Ethiopia, he says, “They have trusted me with my baby brother and I hate to fail them.”

Trying to find the silver lining, Bayisa reasons: “Thank God I eat at work; my only worry is my little brother.” By working two shifts, he manages to provide for his brother so far, but he explains:

“I can barely provide food! I can’t afford to regularly buy sanitizers.”

“If things get worse, I will be forced to send by brother back to my parents.” He adds: “My only dream is to see him finish college and live a better life.”

Tough the curriculum is the same across the country, lack of adequate staff, standard school physical environment and learning materials in the countryside create a huge quality difference compared to the city. In the countryside quality of education depends entirely on the teacher, whereas students in Adis Abeba have access to library and the internet services.

The government strives to provide equal education to every student. Amongst Ethiopian students, some depend on government provision even for food while other lead a lavish life with summer vocations to Dubai.

In the middle of the continuum we find Meti Gemechu, a 20-year-old Marketing Management student at Saint Mary’s University in Addis Abeba.

Previously her time was divided between university, her work coordinating a youth leadership program for a local NGO, friends and family. But since the first corona patient was reported on mid-March her busy life has continued.

“I am taking classes online through handouts and submitting assignments to instructors,” Meti explains.

This however is not an option for millions of students across the countryside since the government doesn’t have such online platform.

Thinking of the future impact, Meti finally says, “I am not under the illusion that the world will ever be the same again. Things are going to be different, and all we can do is adapt.”

She presents two possibilities. Assuming the worst, she says “If things continue like this, people will likely lose their job and bring an economic collapse.” But she also considers a brighter future saying, “By utilizing modern technologies, we can improve the way we live, learn and conduct businesses.”

Utilization of technologies is vital for Ethiopia, but it is a long shot for a traditional and religious country. Henok Hailu is an Orthodox Christian deacon, President of Ethiopian Psychologists Association and lecturer at Addis Ababa University, Department of Psychiatry.

Henok Hailu

Henok explains the different reactions of people during pandemics: “Some may experience moderate fear, which makes them conscious and use PPE. Others resolve to denial and rationalization, leading to inappropriate measures like hoarding or inactive reliance on the higher power – God. For a country like ours, in which 98% of the population is spiritual, the latter often happens.”

With this mentality, any social or natural problem like plague is fought in two fronts: the scientific and the religious. As a Licensed Counseling Psychologist, Henok has seen the value of religion.

He says, “It is helpful for people to be ruled by their moral values so as not to take inappropriate measures. They have to hope and trust that the difficulty shall pass.”

However, he disagrees with extreme spirituality without personal will.

He claims, “It might make people reluctant to scientific measures or demonize the disease because they will create the delusion of comfort by attributing everything to a higher power.”

Henok is a member of the COVID-19 Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Advisory Council of the Ministry of Health. From experience he argues, “In order to create balance and avoid the dichotomy between science and religion, involving religious leaders in educating the public is important.”

Currently, the country’s mainstream Medias dedicate an hour of prayer in the evening. The prayers are from the three dominant religions: Orthodox Christian, Islam and Protestant. Henok states, “The prayers and sermons are very helpful, especially when our moral, social and emotional support highly depends on religion. it will play a vital role in keeping people hopeful and in regaining control over their social, spiritual and economic life.”

As a religious person and a psychologist, Henok advises people, “to acknowledge and vent their feelings; rely on relevant scientific information; and seek spiritual support through religion.”

By Abel Merawi

In the end, I feel that the fight against COVID-19 is primarily economic. Tasewu, Aklilu, Bayisa, and Meti are surviving COVID-19 with personal determination. I wish to stress the importance of implementing the measures because the figures are making people negligent. More importantly, finding an alternative solution for the economic impact is necessary. The restrictions seem to be working for now, but the long term economic impact as a nation is yet to be seen.

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