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COVID-19 and its social impact in Ethiopia: 8 perspectives

When the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Ethiopia in early March, I immediately raced to think about the safety of family, friends and colleagues. Naturally, however, a few moments later, I also began to think and ask questions about how this is going to affect the country. What will the response be like? Will people take it seriously? How will the government handle it? Is social distancing even possible? Does a lockdown make sense given the cultural and social dynamics of the country? How will this affect health and wellbeing but also the economy?

The discourse in international media at the beginning of the outbreak mainly focused on health and the health care system. After the outbreak spread and the epicenter moved from China to Europe, governments worldwide began taking tough measures -- announcing national emergencies and implementing lockdowns, to flatten the curve, the discourse began to include the economic impacts of COVID-19. Yet almost two months into these lockdowns the discourse began embracing a new topic -- the social and mental impact of the pandemic.

In Ethiopia, the Government declared a state of emergency on April 8. I considered the economic impact more stringent measures could have for people in the country. It was not until after the shift in discourse in Europe and also reports and updates from my work in Ethiopia, that the social and mental impacts of COVID-19 came to focus. In one report I read it was mentioned that due to the closure of schools, children in some families are resorting to violence. Needless to say, there is extra stress at the prospect of getting sick and losing jobs on breadwinners in families.

This troubled me and raised further questions. So I began contacting people in my network to get their point of view on COVID-19 and its social and mental impact in the country. I am not a health expert and most of the people I spoke to also operate in different industries such as communication, development, business and faith based professions. I asked eight people eight collective questions about the pandemic and they were so gracious to lend me their thoughts. I will pull a thread of their responses and highlight their interesting insights here:

The social impact

Almost all were surprised about the unraveling of the virus and how fast it spread; especially in how it escalated and caused havoc in Europe. A part of the world many assumed would be better prepared for such a pandemic. Their assessment of how underprepared European countries were to the pandemic was always followed by a description of how grim the prospects would be in Ethiopia. A country with a less developed health system and infrastructure. Most respondents pointed to their country's cultural and economic vulnerabilities making social distancing and lockdowns almost impossible. A Jamaican Pastor in Britain who grew up in Ethiopia mentioned how “not being able to visit your loved ones, attend funerals, weddings, and events is a challenge in the UK and assumes it will be the same in Ethiopia. Another said: “People are active but cautious. In fact, one respondent based in Addis Ababa who is an expert in event management and communication even mentioned how his friend’s father passed away and he was not able to attend the father’s funeral. This is definitely difficult for such a socially close-knit country like Ethiopia. On the other hand, a businessman was surprised by how lax some people are talking about the situation. Mentioning that they think they will be fine, not considering that they could spread the virus to loved ones who would develop more critical symptoms. A psychiatrist mentions that the country has passed the state of panic and that as “a nation we are struggling with those who are in denial.” A development expert further mentioned: “there is a lot of awareness created, but it looks like the majority of people are still living and working normally – except of course, gatherings are not allowed

For what is probably the first time, Ethiopian Easter was celebrated in a more timid and quiet way in Ethiopia. It was the first time for many that they did not celebrate Easter with loved ones, especially elderly parents and grandparents.  And during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are visiting each other for Iftar less than usual.

Not having people go to the mosques for prayer in the evenings is having a huge social impact,” a practicing muslim said. One other respondent said that “people feel deprived in their right to practice their religion”. “It is difficult for a deeply religious country” another person said. Also for families that have children that cannot go to school, the challenge of homeschooling, and entertaining the children is a heavy burden, including the complexities that come at different levels of income. A psychiatrist mentioned how “parents are struggling with meeting their children’s emotional needs, most patterns of relating to adolescent kids are being tested. Some uninvolved or traditional authoritarian parents seem to be unprepared for the current setting.” One said a “sense of peace might be missing.”

A communications expert mentioned that domestic violence has also increased “to a point that the President of Ethiopia’s Supreme Court ordered the courts to remain open for GBV (Gender-Based Violence) cases”. Dealing with uncertainty has led to increased rates of depression, fear, dread, anxiety, and panic the psychiatrist said. An encouraging public speaker and leader of a church in Addis mentioned how the pandemic “affects people in different ways because we’re all wired differently and how we react to change of this nature always spawns anxiety”. He said he has been trying to encourage people to shift their focus from the worry about the uncertainty and use this time to build their faith.

The mental impact

The faith based expert in Britain mentioned how boredom can lead people to use their time in self-harming ways. The psychiatrist I contacted mentioned that people are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. That there are more rates of depression, fear, dread, anxiety, panic and sleep problems. She is seeing more relational problems, problems with concentration, appetite, not being able to relax, unhealthy coping leading to increased rate of substance use, and a sense of hopelessness. People also seem to have several unexplained physical complaints like headaches. She also mentioned that there are significantly higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Furthermore the respondents mentioned that people might not have access to medicine for other health concerns, given the logistical and infrastructural interruptions for supplies, especially in rural areas. The psychiatrist also mentioned the side effects of stress on survivors and healthcare workers, on the frontline and how this might lead to more long-term mental or physical issues. The mental impact could outlast the direct health impact of the pandemic.

The intricacies and complexities

What is so difficult for me and I think everyone else is the uncertainty and the intricacies between physical and mental health, the economy, and the social aspects. Has the health crisis passed or is it yet to unravel in Ethiopia? What will be the aftermath of the devastated global economy in Ethiopia? The development expert mentioned that those working in garment factories and flower farms are not working due to halting of production. He is not sure if they are still getting paid. A businessman added that companies will take a hit and this may result in slowed growth or recession. He fears especially that Ethiopian Airlines might suffer and also tourism. The communication expert assumes several jobs will be lost and that the forex issues will be further exasperated. The absence of transportation is also negatively affecting productivity and is tough for people trying to get to work. I fear that the economic effects will also impact mental and social wellbeing further as people are put under tremendous stress and pressure.

The good news

It is not all doom and gloom, however. All eight respondents were very happy to see that the Government has not implemented a full lockdown, which would have devastated millions of lives and had a profound impact on people who earn their living each day. In fact, although there has been uncertainty they mention how happy they are to see families bonding during this time. They mention how people get together and support one another; sometimes even in creative ways. For instance, more traditional organizations have begun using social media to reach out to followers. Video-meetings have actually led to higher attendance in classes the psychiatrist is giving than her previous face-to-face classes. And telemedicine which could be so vital in a country where access to healthcare is difficult, especially in rural towns is showing promising results. Ethiopian businesses and private people are supporting Government interventions and local communities, with supplies such as oil, food and hygiene equipment for the vulnerable. One person said: The government has also mobilized to provide food for the vulnerable. So far we are managing”. A business person said that “the business community has really stepped up and as such I’m proud of the actions taken in light of the situation”. There has been a spiritual awakening one respondent said. In a deeply religious country, faith will help cope with tremendous stress. All respondents felt that Ethiopia will continue pursuing its growth path and eventually that tourism and economic growth will resume.

The epilogue

It is clear that the pandemic has and will continue to have negative social impacts. In Ethiopia, although COVID-19 has not caused many fatalities as of yet, fear, uncertainty, and the preventative Government measures, such as closing schools, have had impacts on people’s lives and potentially mental health. Such measures, for example, impacted how important religious holidays and customs such as Easter and Ramadan are observed. It is having an effect on families and individuals. It has presented challenges for culture and business. Yet, the Ethiopian resilience I admire so much continues. Organizations and individuals have been stepping up in solidarity to help one another. Innovation and working from home, especially for professionals has brought new ideas and dynamics into the workplace which will impact future productivity. Families are beginning to work out issues. People such as myself have become more aware of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. The people I interviewed were certain of one thing, that the pandemic will end, but that the impact on mental health, families, and businesses will linger longer. I think the intricate social and cultural design of Ethiopia is best observed in the solidarity that people show when they greet each other with love and respect. The pandemic will end. Its impact on health and the economy might stay longer. Yet Ethiopian resilience before and after the pandemic will continue. When I asked if people will still greet each other again after the pandemic, one person answered: “Here in Ethiopia, of course”.

Ed.’s Note: Amanuel Grunder was born in Addis Ababa to a Swiss father and an Ethiopian mother. He has spent nine years working on youth employment, women empowerment and social accountability in Ethiopia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Amanuel Grunder