Why Does Ethiopian Airlines Continue Flights to China Amid a Highly Contagious Coronavirus Endemic There?  

Why Does Ethiopian Airlines Continue Flights to China Amid a Highly Contagious Coronavirus Endemic There?

By Bahiru Gametchu (PhD), February 14, 2020

I’m releasing this brief note as an expression of personal concern on the decision made by Ethiopian Airlines not to suspend commercial flights to and from China in the wake of an ongoing endemic in that country. My remonstration is reinforced after reading the February 9, 2019 piece on washingtonpost.com entitled, “’In good and bad times’: Africa’s biggest airline, Ethiopian, sticks by China’s side.” In a very recent press briefing, the Ethiopian Airlines CEO, Mr. Tewolde Gebre Mariam, doubled down on the decision to continue flights to and from China. By maintaining such flights, the air carrier is putting its citizens’ safety as well as the well-being of the international community at risk. I urge Ethiopian authorities to reconsider their decision.

Background: It has been more than two weeks since the world realized an outbreak of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) infection first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The virus has now spread to more than 28 countries and territories. The new RNA virus belongs to the coronavirus family, the same family as the virus that causes SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome. Like SARS, the 2019-nCoV initiates a vicious and deadly respiratory illness.

There is very limited information presently on this highly contagious disease. Generally, coronaviruses are spread through air droplets expelled when an infected individual coughs or sneezes within a range of about 6 feet (1.8 m), which can contaminate surfaces like door handles or railings. The 2019-nCoV incubation period is estimated to last between two to 14 days. Very recent observations have confirmed that some individuals may have contracted the disease from infected but asymptomatic persons. This means individuals may not know of their exposure to the virus for up to the following 14 days during which time they can pass the disease on to others. This makes the pathogen not only excessively dangerous, but also challenging for the public to avoid.

The virus was reported for the first time in humans in December 2019. Scientists believe it was originally observed in bats and later ‘jumped species’ to human, a process known to occur via random genetic mutation. At times, this type of infection can be extra deadly for a couple of reasons. First, there is no natural immunity against the invading pathogen because of its complete align nature to the human host. Second, there is no vaccine available that can protect against the disease. In the absence these two critical defense elements, patients become sitting ducks. Several laboratories around the globe are frantically racing around the clock to come up in the shortest possible time with reagents by which the endemic can be brought under control. Unquestionably, vaccine development is at the top of the list. Recommended measures of infection prevention are rudimentary at this point. For instance, people are advised to limit exposure to infected individuals. Washing of hands with soap on a regular base and disinfecting of contaminated environments with alcohol-based solutions are also urged. Additionally, infected individuals are counselled to isolate themselves by staying indoors, and limiting virus propagation by wearing facemasks and blocking respiratory droplets from flying away during coughing and sneezing, etc.

State of Endemic and Attempt to Curtail Virus Spread: As of February 13, 2019, more than 60,000 infections (with >16,000 infection occurring just today alone) and about 1,320 deaths (~253 of these deaths happening just today) have been reported worldwide, the great majority of these being from China. In order to contain the endemic to the source of origin and curb propagation to other countries, several governments have recently suspended temporarily all commercial flights between their respective countries and China. This is a routine emergency measure taken by responsible governments each time a dangerous disease outbreak occurs, more recent examples include the SARS, or Ebola viruses outbreaks. Some of these governments have put additional measures in place to minimize chance of disease propagation in their countries. For instance, the USA has imposed entry restriction to the country for foreigners, and a 14-day quarantine for its citizens and permanent residents coming from or transiting through China. The carriers that have suspended flights to and from China include American Airlines; United Airlines, Delta; Air Canada (from North America); Air Asia; All Nippon; Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon; Japan Airlines; Korean Air; Singapore Airlines and SilkAir; Qantas; Air New Zealand; Hong Kong Airlines (from Asia and Oceania); Air France; British Airways; Virgin Atlantic; Lufthansa, Swiss and Austrian Airlines; Turkish Airlines; Etihad; Emirates; Qatar Airways; Finnair; KLM; Iberia, from Europe and the Middle East. Some African airlines have recently jointed the moratorium.

The exception to these carriers is Ethiopian Airlines. So far, the authorities have refused to heed the good example set by major international air carriers. The justification they offer is listed below copied and pasted from Mr. Eric Olander’s, Managing Editor, The China Africa Project, piece dated February 6, 2020:

“While 59 other carriers from 44 different countries have all grounded their flights to China, Ethiopian Airlines insists that it will follow directive from the World Health Organization (WHO) and until it is deemed unsafe by the international body, the airlines will continue its daily flight schedule to/from China.”

If I understand the Company correctly, Ethiopian authorities are telling the world they must acquire directives from the WHO first before they rule on suspending their commercial flights to the endemic zone, China. This is mind boggling, given the fact that the WHO has been at the forefront of sounding the alarm regarding the virus. The WHO has been releasing/updating information on a day-to-day basis pertaining to the highly contagious nature of the 2019-nCoV and the dire risk to the public. Leading virology research institutions around the world, including the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) are in complete agreement with the findings of the WHO. In fact, those nations who have grounded their carries made the decision following a careful consideration of judicious scientific opinions emanating from the WHO itself as well as several world’s leading experts. It is, therefore, unclear at all what additional directives the Ethiopian Airlines is seeking from the WHO.

How Cheap is Human Life in Ethiopia? The question is why is Ethiopia acting different from other countries on this matter? Why did Ethiopian leaders choose to look the other way when their citizens’ precious lives are at risk? The Ethiopian authorities can wait for as long as they want to, but the explanation they have given to date is not credible. WHO experts have already spoken scientific truth about the virus. Much of the developed world has already responded by attempting to contain the virus at its source of origin. The prudent decision to SUSPEND ALL FLIGHTS (100%) IN AND OUT OF CHINA was passed in the last many days to this end, and Ethiopia must follow suit! Any halfhearted alternative such as CUTTING DOWN NUMBER OF FLIGHTS TO CHINA, as Ethiopia is doing, WILL NOT WORK for this type of pathogen! The many flights that the Ethiopian Airlines has made to China, during the moratorium placed by other countries and airlines, most certainly have already exposed an unknown number of people to the 2019-nCoV. With each passing day, many more people are being exposed.

Will the Feared Negative Impact on the Economy be Avoidable? Any average reader who follows events closely in Ethiopia should know that financial considerations may be at the core of the country’s decision-making process on this matter. In fact, a leading Ethiopian Airlines official recently admitted that fear of financial bankruptcy is at the center for the decision not to suspend commercial flights to China. If this is true, no amount of economic incentive justifies endangering the lives of Ethiopians by exposing them to the 2019-nCoV. There are also many non-citizens who reside in Ethiopia, including diplomats, people working for international organizations/institutions, etc. whose safety is put at risk by the inaction of Ethiopian authorities.

The virus has not been reported yet in Africa and S. America. Given that there are only six laboratories on the entire continent of Africa with the capacity to diagnose the 2019-nCoV, the veracity of this information remains to be seen. Whatever the case may be, experience teaches us the honeymoon will not last much longer. Ethiopian Airlines has a good reputation serving many countries in the African continent. As the endemic continues to grow exponentially by the passing day, sooner or later the time will arrive when Ethiopian Airlines will face a mounting outcry to halt flights to and from China. Already some African leaders, including the Kenyan President, have started airing concerns about the safety risk associated with the Airlines’ continued access to their nations’ airports. The carrier also serves other countries outside of Africa, including in the Middle East, Europe and the USA. Chances are none of these countries will be willing to put Ethiopia’s misguided economic interest over the well-beings of their citizens. Eventually, if Ethiopia does not appropriately respond to the biological threat from China, other countries likely will deny Ethiopian Airlines access to their airports. Thus, Ethiopia’s feared economic hardship resulting from the cessation of flights to and from China is likely inevitable in the very near future. Ethiopia should act now, make the only moral choice available: join the international community and the world’s major airlines in ceasing flights to and from China.

 

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The Bahiru Gametchu has a PhD in virology/immunology from Cornell University and more than three and half decades of NIH-awarded basic biomedical research experience, teaching and research grants review administration at the NIH in the general areas of training.

7 Comments

  1. Kichuu are you sure this man Bahiru Gametchu is a real PhD? I sounds stupid. I cannot believe is from Cornell University….
    First a number of times the WHO as said that it is not necessary to stop flights to China, and you can read it at
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-who/who-chief-says-widespread-travel-bans-not-needed-to-beat-china-virus-idUSKBN1ZX1H3
    and at
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/opinion/china-travel-coronavirus.html
    Second if our Ethiopian Airways starts losing money thousands and thousands perhaps millions of Ethiopians will suffer, EA is the main fat cow of Ethiopia if it goes down I don’t know what will happen.
    So my go readers, just ignore this foolish little person with a fake PhD and hope that we can maintain our agreements with our partner China and show the world we keep our skies open.

    • Mr. Abdi. You sound very eager to kill the messenger, rather than the message. A couple of points need to be pointed out:

      1. Cornell is one of the world’s most respected institutions of higher learning. Credentials may be bought in your world but are very rarely sold at any respected/accredited USA universities, let alone an Ivy League school, which, for your information, Cornell is. But if you insist believing Cornell gives out fake PhDs, the institution will be very eager to settle the matter with you. As for the said foolishness of the writer, whom you probably have never heard of before or met per your admission, the slanderous attack says more about you than the writer.

      2.The information cited in the provided weblink was released when the number of confirmed infections was at 17,238 and mortality figure 391. Yesterday, only a couple of days since, those figures sky-rocketed to more than 60,000 and 1,391, respectively. Those are WHO’s figures and they’re likely to continue increasing exponentially by the passing day.

      3. The justification you’ve offered may work for economics, but it does so at a colossal expense to people’s life. That is where you and the civilized world diverge.

      • Obu Abbaa, I never said that Cornell is a bad, what I said and say is that I suspect that Bahiru Gametchu the writer of the article is not a real PhD but in fact a OLF person who has not yet finished his studies here in the same town as myself, Adama.
        https://www.facebook.com/bahiru.gemechu.1
        second, what ever WHO is still maintaining that it is not necessary to cancel all flights, I was seeing on CNN just a few days ago that the precautions been taken by the airplanes is very high, and it is actually impossible to transmit the virus inside a airplane.

        Thank you for replying to my post. I hope I clarified.

    • Abedi,
      Are you sure you understood the message? It is unfortunate that whenever some intellectuals provide insight to critical issues affecting our people the tendency is to criticize than appreciating and encouraging a person. According to you “EA is the main fat cow of Ethiopia” how about the lives of over 100 million Ethiopians?

  2. Abdi
    You are the most stupid person I ever heard off. Do you even know how to write in English? You do not know what PHD is all about. Yes, he has more than PHD. You have only your stomach to fill. You are a Jallee of neftenjaa.

    • Thank you Bonyuu, yes I’m afraid I am stupid, I’m just an ignorant Oromo living on my land, I did not have the opportunity to study and live outside the country and I take a little dislike by for more fortunate who live outside and think they know better.
      Yes sir, telecom and EA pay for the hospitals, schools and soldiers, and all the rest, if this income just stopped what do you think would happen to our people?
      Anyway, thank you Bontuu for taking the time to reply to my post.
      I wish that when people disagree we would not insult and or them neftenjaa.
      It is people like you who makes me wonder that we not yet prepared for democracy.

  3. Abedi, If that is your real name, I did not want to respond to you anymore because we have different values. I value human lives, the lives of over 100 million Ethiopians and many other people who get exposed to the virus because ET’ action. You value income, to say the least how ET supports various institutions. ET can provide resources as well as protect human lives.
    More so I am surprised to read your response of Feb 15 to Abbaa Faliqaa.
    1. You sited a face book website of a person by the name of Bahiru Gemechu who studied at Adama etc.
    You are blaming an individual you call “a OLF person”, as the writer of the article. This individual is NOT the one who wrote the article. You ar accusing a wrong person, an innocent person. What is more is you seem to be bringing politics into a matter of pure science issues. Science and politics are like oil and water, the two don’t mix. And in so doing you are implicating a harmless person, and this is dangerous. I am worried something can happen to this person because of your action. As I said I originally was not going to respond, but I changed my mind and decided to write this note primarily to make sure an innocent person does not get hurt. I am certain that the individual you call “a OLF person” is not the same person who wrote the article. If you cared to check the spellings of the last names, you would note they are different : i.e the two are different persons. One’s name is spelled as Gametchu(the author), and the other’s name is spelled as Gemechu ( whom you call “a OLF member”.
    The writer of the article attached wrote his full name without reservation because he had nothing to hide. For him, the issue is plain science, NOT politics. If you really want the truth, find out who this writer is and if he is real or not. To do so I suggest.: 1. perform a simple web search (e.g using google) and write his full name as appeared on the article. 2. you can also visit the web pages of anyone of the institutions the writer has been affiliated with before and find his name as well as his work.
    Finally, I want to say it is completely laughable, so much so that it doesn’t even warrant a response when you say “it is actually impossible to transmit the virus inside an airplane” Really?

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