News Alert: Saudi Arabia bans travel to and from Ethiopia, cites coronavirus threat

Zecharias Zelalem, March 12, 2020

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Ethiopian health workers prepare to screen passengers for COVID-19 at the Addis Abeba airport. Photo: Michael Tewelde / AFP/Getty Images

Addis Abeba (Addis Standard) – Saudi Arabia has temporarily banned travel to and from a number of countries, including Ethiopia. The measures are part of an attempt to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 or coronavirus outbreak, although there are no confirmed cases in Ethiopia. All flights to Ethiopia will be canceled and entry of non-nationals will be halted. There are currently 45 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Kingdom, according to Saudi Health Ministry spokesman Mohammed Abdelali, who also announced that 25 hospitals around the kingdom were fully prepared in the event of any upsurge in cases.

A similar ban on travel to China, Italy and South Korea had already been announced last week. The European Union, India and Pakistan were added to Saudi Arabia’s list today. The rational behind the inclusion of a number of African states in the ban is unclear. Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Djibouti have also been removed as travel destinations for Saudi nationals, despite none of these countries confirming a single case of the virus. Despite the outbreak in the United States being currently the tenth worst in the world, the United States hasn’t been subjected to any sort of travel restrictions by Saudi Arabia.

The World Health Organization’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, as the number of cases surpassed 120,000 globally and the spread of the virus outside initial epicentre China increased “13 fold.” Over 4600 deaths have been reported. “The WHO is deeply concerned by the alarming levels of the coronavirus spread, severity and inaction,” Ethiopian born Dr. Tedros tweeted. He added that he expects things to worsen.

There remain no confirmed cases in Ethiopia. Four suspected cases last month were declared negative by Minister of Health Dr. Lia Tadesse. She also announced the setup of quarantine centers, intensive screening at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport and an emergency hotline specifically for dealing with potential coronavirus cases.

But Ethiopia’s preparedness has been put into doubt by its inability to contain ongoing outbreaks of measles and cholera, both of which have infected 9,000 people in parts of Oromia. The Voice of America’s Tigist Geme reported 30 deaths in the past two weeks as a result of the rampant spread of these diseases.

The concerns are shared by medical specialists in the country. Dr. Nuredin Luke who a medical doctor at the Shashemene Referral Hospital, some 255 km south of Addis Abeba, says the government’s efforts at readying institutions to deal with the coronavirus are subpar.

“We as health professionals lack protective equipment such as masks, goggles, face shields and aprons to fight the virus and help patients,” Dr. Nuredin told Addis Standard. “I can say that medical professionals are more than ready to carry out their duties if the government provides us with protective equipment.”

Ethiopian residents of Saudi Arabia are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands and it isn’t clear if any were among the thousands of people in Saudi Arabia recently tested. The United Arab Emirates had recently announced that two Ethiopian nationals living in Dubai were being cared for in quarantine after testing positive, although one of them has since been declared coronavirus free.

Ethiopia’s capacity to control the flow of passengers traveling by air from places hard hit by the pandemic to Ethiopia is also questionable. However, authorities are exerting efforts to use various ways to get community reports about possible symptoms. Last week, for example, the state telecommunications provider Ethio Telecom sent sms messages to mobile phone users across the country asking them to report to authorities if they’ve recently traveled to hard hit states and are coming down with known symptoms.

In addition Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has set up a national Ministerial Committee dedicated to assess the status of national preparedness to be taken the virus and the tasks undertaken so far. On March 09, PM Abiy has received the first briefing from the committee from Dr. Liya.

Accordingly, the Press office of PM Abiy listed the following as the main gist of Dr. Liya’s briefing on the status the national preparedness:

In Ethiopia, there is no confirmed positive case thus far. Nevertheless the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with relevant institutions, have:

– set up a 24hr emergency center to work on #COVID19 preparedness
– screening of travelers entering the country through land and air
– follow-up of suspected cases by phone
– operation of 8335 phone line for alerts of suspected cases and information
– in country testing being done since February 18 after acquiring the required testing equipment
– setup of quarantine centers
– setup of Yeka Kotebe hospital as the primary hospital to take care of suspected cases and positive confirmations with capacity to attend to 600 patients
– development of other medical institutions as backup centers
– collection of required input materials for prevention and response, like masks etc
– strengthening communication and relaying adequately and timely information to the public to raise awareness

Considering global trends, it is inevitable that cases will emerge in country and therefore the public needs to be well aware of prevention precautions and keep calm. Relatedly, members of the public are advised to:

1. Increase sanitation practices, washing hands frequently and limiting unnecessary touching
2. Increase consumption of immune system boosting nutrients; and
3. Engage in awareness raising on prevention measures and alert public health officials on suspected cases.

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