Enawgaw Mehari (MD), Founder of People to People
In this dynamic world where man made and natural disasters affect developing countries like Ethiopia, it is imperative that countries take advises and recommendations from experts so that they make knowledge-based decisions. Although Ethiopia has many people educated abroad with a good understanding of local contexts, this has time and again proved to be not enough for the demands the country has as the country exploited them in local and international platforms. Because of this, the government has been motivating the diaspora to engage in the country apart from sending money. One of the diaspora-based initiatives that intends to bridge local needs and talents abroad is People to People (P2P) formed in 1999. Founded by Enawgaw Mehari (MD), and co, P2P currently engages in supporting the country in multiple areas where it provides support in terms of awareness creation and lobbying to enhance the country’s international relations, especially in recent times. Brook Abdu of The Reporter had a phone interview with Dr. Enawgaw, a neurologist by training but working in a wide-ranging advisory role to the government apart from his philanthropic works across the country. In discussion are matters pertaining to the current crises in the country and the growing disagreement with the West the country entered as a result of the conflict in the northern part of the country.
The Reporter: People to People (P2P) was formed to assist health system development in Ethiopia by reducing the spreading of disease, as was stated in its objective. Let’s begin by discussing the history of P2P and how long it came in terms of achieving this target?
Enawgaw Mehari (MD): People to People was established in April 1999, at the time when HIV/AIDS was a major threat to the world. Back then it was said that a percent of the world’s infection rate was registered in Ethiopia, and nine percent of the world’s HIV/AIDS case was in Ethiopia. This shows us how severely Ethiopia was affected by the virus. We might be the first to have an HIV/AIDS conference on the United Nation stage in January 1999. Many people who have had great influence on the virus’s containment attended the conference. We came to Ethiopia, conducted a national survey starting from the Black Lion Hospital. It was then that I realized the crises caused by the virus and I thought of how I can be part of the solution for my country. This is what led to the idea People to People. Back then the HIV/AIDS treatment drugs were not legal in Ethiopia, and treatment drugs for scabbing on the head or throat due to the virus as well as those taken when patients are unable to swallow food could not enter the country. However, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals used to freely give these treatments for more than 40 countries back then. Ethiopia was also made one of these countries by considering the burden HIV has had on the country. But the drug was not registered in Ethiopia so it couldn’t be imported.
We had to go back and forth with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health for a long time, but we got the drug in eventually. We also used to gather orphans around Christmas to feed them and support them. After doing that for a couple of years, we wanted to sustain it rather than doing it just for a day; so, we decided to open a female’s boarding school in 2005 in Amanuel town, a close by city to Debre Berhan. Many of the students have now graduated from universities; some even went to medical school.
The main objective of People to People is to serve as a bridge. A country needs man power, quality education and a good health care in order to grow. All developed countries have these these three qualities. We have these amongst the Ethiopian diaspora, but most are not working with in the country. Most people have left the country due to politics or other factors. The country has lost a lot of educated individuals, and our universities are not well equipped for quality education. That’s where we come in; how do we connect these well-educated individuals outside of the country with the country? We created this platform within P2P to serve as a global bridge to connect these needs. Our doctrine is creating a triangular partnership. Previously, it was called twin partnership. But triangular partnership implies creating a three-way relationship between the diaspora, western institutions and local institutions to transfer knowledge and information among them. For example, the neurology department at the Black Lion Hospital started offering trainings which was made possible through People to People by collaborating with Mayo Clinic, University of Kentucky and projects from WHO and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We have also offered emergency medicine trainings for doctors at the Black Lion Hospital in collaboration with Wisconsin University, so when one arrives at the emergency there, they are treated by well-trained emergency medicine doctors. And also, at the Sidisk Kilo campus of Addis Ababa University, we started a Social Works program which now offers Masters and PhD programs. We also collaborate with other universities in this regard.
We’ve written an Ethiopian medical history manual that educational institutions use on top from western manuals. What we have learned throughout the pandemic is that, the most important thing is working together. In the beginning the World Health Organization (WHO) didn’t recommend people to wear masks and we fought for people to wear mask to prevent people from touching their faces with their hands. Taking that advanced prevention method into consideration, we advocated for masks and quarantining.
The Reporter: Although it has been more than two decades since P2P was founded, it is evident that its objectives are tested at times of global pandemic such as the coronavirus pandemic. You have been engaging with the MoH to create awareness within the panic as well as help in understanding the nature of the virus through different settings. Do you believe the pandemic had been well managed given the wide range of support the government received including from you? And what are the indicators for this?
Enawgaw Mehari (MD): It is undeniable that the virus was new to everyone, even the WHO recommended wearing face masks after a while because it was new to them as well. But criticisms were raised regarding Ethiopian Airlines’ flights to China. And, regarding lockdowns, a lot of people argued that it would affect the economic activities of the country. In the developed countries people can afford rent, and groceries and they have places to stay in. However, in Ethiopia, there are lots of people in the country who could not afford those things. Some people were saying a person is more likely to die out of starvation in these situations than COVID.
After the state of emergency proclamation was issued, people used to wash streets, because they were scared that the virus would wipe them out. But the effects were not as bad as feared, specially the first six months, compared to other western countries. Usually, those countries take lesson from the developing world when bad things happen; but this time the developing world was at the receiving end. Ethiopia was not as affected compared to the the western world. However, after the expiry of the state of emergency proclamation after six months, it was not renewed. It was a cabinet agenda at the beginning led by a committee chaired the Deputy Prime Minister.
After six months, the restrictions placed for the prevention of the virus were loosened. After another six months period, the precautionary measures were completely ignored. I believe that we have to adhere by the precautionary measures at the start of the pandemic. We called for action and they brought the mandate back to the cabinet. What complicates that situation a bit is that, the impact in Africa has not been like what was observed in Italy, China, America and the UK. Half a million people have died in India while Ethiopia has Lost 5000 or 6000 people. Even though our numbers are still worrisome, it is not half as bad as what was feared. The best effort Ethiopia did was during the first six months.
What makes the restoration of the precautions at this time would be the military mobilization in the country as a result of the national security concerns linked to the conflict in the northern part of the country. It would be difficult to call for precautions in this situation.
In addition, social distancing would be challenging for people who live in a small room for five or six. Quarantining is unthinkable in a household that depends on daily income.
But officials need to be exemplary when it comes to precautions. They appear before the public attending public events without face masks. Even though we opposed, public events such as mass sports are carried out.
The Reporter: One of the concerns in relation to the coronavirus pandemic is vaccine nationalism coming from the side of the vaccine producing nations. How is this affecting the capacity of the developing nations like Ethiopia in terms of preventing the spreading of the virus?
Enawgaw Mehari (MD): I believe the pandemic also has also has a mental and psychological trauma. It would cause anxiety because people would be worried that they would die of a new virus which does not have treatment. When people know that the pandemic does not have a medicine, they might be affected psychologically. I wonder if they would have made vaccines for Africans had all Americans wanted to get vaccinated. Something of similar nature has happened during the HIV pandemic.
Thankfully there is a new movement to establish Ethiopian Vaccine Institute to work on how Africa and other developing countries can work together to provide drugs and vaccines for themselves. There are Ethiopian experts who could produce vaccines in the country if proper financing is provided. Out of 100 million population in Ethiopia, only two million were vaccinated, which is a very small segment of the population. Asking for the vaccines is no different than begging for food; we have the capacity so the generation needs to address this problem. Begging and pride don’t go hand in hand; so, this needs to be resolved soon.
But if you ask me about fairness, I don’t think it was fair when it comes to vaccine distribution.
For instance, if a child soldier goes to war in England or Germany or in the US, the media coverage would be focused on that because it would be considered a major issue but when it is in Ethiopia, it won’t even be properly covered. Initially the US stated that no vaccine should be e because they exported because they would do their best to protect themselves when something happens.
Something that we have learned from the coronavirus pandemic is that, health is a national security issue.
The Reporter: Other initiatives by the diaspora are also being carried out such as the team that provides the government with economic and other advises. How effective do you say are these initiatives in terms of getting incorporated into policy decisions made by the government?
Interviewee: In principle, I think it is important that the diaspora and the people in Ethiopia should be able to trust each other and have mutual respect. For the diaspora, it is important that they recognize the context in Ethiopia. If they try to put the theory they studies without considering the local context, it will be difficult to achieve a goal.
However, if one side tries to present itself as more knowledgeable than the other, it would be difficult to reach a goal. When people say government and diaspora, it seems like it is a huge umbrella. I advise at The Ministry of Science and Higher Education. I am the chair in facility and staff development and there are also others who chair different committees. We have one person who chairs the chairs of each sub committees. So, when there is a good relationship between individuals, we can achieve a goal.
The most important task is coordination, and this requires educated human resource, as well as qualified individuals. Institutional memory is absent in the country. When working in a new environment, it is the locals that are experts and if you have a good relationship with them, they’re more likely to accept your message.
The Reporter: The diaspora had tried to lobby people in the Biden administration as well as in the house of representatives? Do you think these were not successful because the government did not support the initiatives? And can we say this is resulting in the undue pressures coming from the west?
Enawgaw Mehari (MD): I think the west takes silence as weakness, and usually when countries firmly state their positions, they are taken seriously. I think a lot of people support the Prime Minister’s action recently such as not giving audience to USAID Administrator Samantha Power. He then warmly welcomed South Sudan’s leader, which is a clear message to the west.
The international community kept silent when more than 100 trucks carried humanitarian aid to Tigray but they did not return. But when it comes to sending aid to the Amhara and Afrar regions, aid agencies say they don’t feel safe. There is a double standard. This should have been addressed publicly from the beginning and they should be named and shamed.
When the Biden administration says its sanctions are not against the people but the government, they must know that the people voted for Abiy Ahmed. The bottom line is Ethiopia needs to stand its ground; bending to the West’s will has never helped any country.
The west regards silence as weakness and the government’s silence might have hurt the country so far.
The Reporter: Given what you have raised above, do you think there is a wider and full understanding of the global political and interest dynamics from the government side? And what does the future hold for the country?
Enawgaw Mehari (MD): I think the biggest and main problem in Ethiopia is not the conflict between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopia is one of the countries with the biggest population in the horn of Africa; Indian Ocean’s 40 percent trade passes via the Horn of Africa. That alone raises the interest of many countries, not just the US. It’s like a critical artery for the middle east, the blockage of which would cause a global economic crisis. No one wants that.
The developed nations want us to abide by their rules without straying. If Ethiopia was agree with Somalia and Eritrea to trade among each other by exchanging what they have, it won’t make the West that much happy. Since the horn of Africa concerns the US’s and Europe’s interest, they involved the United Nations. In the past the US used to influence Africa through it four satellite bases in all corners of Africa.
The recent moves by the west proved to me how important Ethiopia is, as they proclaimed it as their national security threat. Ethiopia is fighting al-Shabaab, a group that is against America’s interest. Ethiopia couldn’t be fighting al-Shabaab and be a threat to the US interests. Ethiopia fights al-Shabaab means it supports America’s security interest.
All of this will settle if Ethiopia stands its ground. Because unstable Ethiopia is more costly. The US does not want a disintegrated Ethiopia too.
Of course, it would be great to win the war in Tigray so that Ethiopia can dictate what comes next. After winning, one can set the terms for negotiation. If Ethiopia becomes incapable of doing that, the conflict could be protracted dragging many issues along with it.