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.

——

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.

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