The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has become another challenge for Ethiopia as the East African country faces civil conflict, food scarcity and increasing poverty. For the first time in 22 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally may increase due to the pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Ethiopia has been substantial. Roughly 42% of registered businesses in Ethiopia’s capital closed down completely and other businesses saw drastically reduced or no income. The COVID-19 pandemic may potentially reverse Ethiopia’s poverty progress over the last two decades.
COVID-19 in Ethiopia
As of May 14, 2021, Ethiopia had almost 265,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and almost 4,000 recorded deaths, straining an already fragile health system and delaying access to other crucial medical care. The pandemic has also caused delays in distributing childhood vaccines for polio and measles. Furthermore, it is also likely to increase the morbidity rates of other common diseases. In April 2020, half of all households in Ethiopia saw their incomes reduce or disappear entirely. Urban areas were formerly the foundations for Ethiopia’s economic growth. These areas have been the most affected by COVID-19 as employment and income have fallen.
The economic setback of COVID-19 may have lasting repercussions for Ethiopia’s future. The pandemic’s impact on education has become an even more significant concern. Schools in Ethiopia closed in March 2020 and an estimated 26 million students lost access to primary and secondary education. Such a halt in education puts many children at risk of dropping out or being forced into child labor or child marriage. According to a survey in 2018, roughly 16 million children between 5 and 17 are involved in child labor across Ethiopia. While schools began to reopen in October 2020, there are still concerns over the lost time and how it might affect students’ success later in life.
COVID-19 and Civil Conflict
The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Ethiopia may be the highest in the Tigray region. Conflict erupted in November 2020 as tensions rose following a delay in national elections. By January 2021, about two million people were displaced by the violence, many of whom have fled to neighboring Sudan. The fighting has negatively impacted the availability of healthcare. At one point, only five out of 40 hospitals in the region were accessible. This dramatically increases the challenge of responding to the pandemic and makes it difficult to assess the full extent of COVID-19 in the area.
Food scarcity is another significant problem following extensive crop losses caused by swarms of desert locusts. Some farmers lost up to half of their harvests due to locust plagues. At the same time, the conflict has made it very difficult to procure food from outside of the region. Malnutrition is a real risk, especially for children. Many families are already experiencing decreased income and are unable to afford the rising food prices. The effects of the conflict, pandemic and food insecurity have placed an estimated 4.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
Through a partnership with the World Bank, the Ethiopian government has been able to fund a comprehensive response plan to improve the country’s ability to address the impact of COVID-19 on poverty. The Ethiopia COVID-19 Emergency Response Project’s primary focus is increasing resources and testing capacity. Now, there are 69 testing laboratories across Ethiopia. This is in addition to the establishment of contact tracing systems, 50 quarantine facilities, 332 isolation wards and 64 treatment centers. Public awareness and health education are prioritized with door-to-door campaigns to reach vulnerable populations.
It is also vital to stimulate the economy by focusing on supporting the small businesses that the pandemic has hit hardest in order to see true poverty reduction. Because of the uncertain nature of the outbreak, a recovery plan will have to be adaptable. Addressing poverty in Ethiopia, and Tigray specifically, will also require a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict in the region, an act that multiple world leaders encourage. These goals can mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Ethiopia, furthering recovery progress.
– Nicole Ronchetti