In an exclusive interview for Deutsche Welle, Maria Gerth-Niculescu sat down with Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam to discuss the impact that COVID-19 is having on Africa’s largest airline. Ethiopian Airlines flights continue, but at a much-reduced rate. Flights to Frankfurt, for example, used to run daily but have now been cut to three times per week. London routes that ran at ten times a week are now down to three as well. Business lost so far from the slowdown has cost the company more than US$550 million.
Gebremariam assured the interviewer that Ethiopian Airlines has been taking all the necessary precautions to protect their flight staff by providing masks and disinfectant, yet three cabin crew members have tested positive for COVID-19. Flights to Europe continue partially at the behest of European governments, which have used Ethiopia as a point of departure for expats attempting to travel home. When asked why Ethiopian Airlines continues to fly to China when most other African airlines have suspended these routes, Gebremariam countered that many other airlines—like Japan’s Nippon, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways—also continue to fly to China.
Since the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a major source of revenue for the airline, is likely to be cancelled this year, Ethiopian Airlines is focusing on cargo and other businesses.
Why It Matters
Ethiopia has developed a very strong business relationship with China, which partially explains why it has continued to fly to Guangzhou during the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists have expressed concern that Ethiopia is running a grave risk by doing so. As Africa’s second-most populous country, with a struggling healthcare system, there is a genuine fear that a large outbreak in Ethiopia could turn the country into a mass incubator for the virus and spread it to neighboring countries. In such a situation, Ethiopian security forces could ramp up suppression of opposition political leaders, which has been a persistent problem since January, according to Amnesty International. The Horn of Africa nation has already postponed August elections, viewed as a referendum on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform efforts, and so a mass outbreak can only set back Ethiopia’s political reforms even further.