Ethiopia Becomes Africa’s First Responder in the War on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

20 mins read

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Ethiopia has risen to meet the challenge and become Africa’s first responder in the war on COVID-19.

Led by H.E. Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is proposing to the G-20 (20 of the largest economies in the world) a three-pronged approach to deal with the potentially (and in the views of most experts highly likely) devastating effects of the coronavirus crises on African economies and societies.

In the short-term, the proposal is to get as many test kits, masks and protective clothing as possible for all of Africa as part of a robust and aggressive effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

In the long-term, the aim is to get Africa increased budget support, enhanced balance of payment support and debt relief for all of Africa through G-20 financial packages.

It is a bold, timely, forward-looking and manifestly practical proposal.

Ethiopia’s short-term strategy to deal with the COVID-19 crises

On March 15, 2020 H.E. Prime Minster Dr. Abiy Ahmed talked to Jack Ma, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group to solicit donations of critical medical supplies in anticipation of the COVID-19 invasion of Africa.

Their conversation produced a commitment by the Jack Ma Foundation to deliver vitally needed medical supplies for distribution throughout Africa.

By March 22, Ethiopian Airlines had airlifted from China “5.4 million face masks, kits for 1.08 million detection tests, 40,000 sets of protective clothing and 60,000 sets of protective face shields.”

Each of the continent’s 54 nations will receive 20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 protective suits in the fight to contain the spread of the virus.

By March 23, Ethiopian Airlines was delivering the supplies to Eritrea, Djibouti, Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopian Airlines is delivering the supplies at one of its most challenging financial moments in its corporate history. It is absorbing the entire cost of this mercy mission.

Watch video here.

I keep asking myself, “How could millions of face masks, detection tests and protective clothing be delivered to critically affected African countries in less than a week from start to finish?”

I believe there are great lessons in leadership to be learned from what PM Abiy and Jack Ma were able to accomplish with lightning speed.

  1. African leaders need to think outside the box when their countries are facing existential threats.

PM Abiy did not go to the traditional international aid agencies snarled in bureaucratic red tape to ask for lightning fast emergency assistance. He thought outside the box to save Africa and Ethiopia. He picked up the phone and called his friend Jack Ma to get immediate action.

Would he have gotten the same response if he had called the U.S. Secretary of State or the British Foreign Secretary or someone at the European Union’s External Action Service? I doubt it.

Let’s face it and be honest. How many in the Trump administration would be interested in saving 54 “shit hole countries” in Africa by airlifting millions of masks, tests and protective clothing? Trump talks about coronavirus being under control and life getting back to usual by April 12 as the number of infections and deaths soar.  In just two weeks, the U.S. has nearly 13 percent of the global infections!

I wish I was the fly on the wall listening to PM Abiy and Jack Ma talking about emergency delivery of medical supplies.

PM Abiy: “Listen Jack. Hear me good. Africa is facing a threat like no other. COVID-19 could devastate the continent in no time. I need your help to defend all Africa before the invisible Army of COVID-19 slips through our borders. I need your help NOW, not tomorrow, not next week.”

Jack Ma: “Not a problem. When can you send your plane to pick up the supplies?”

PM Abiy: “How about tomorrow?

Jack Ma: “Done!”

PM Abiy: “Thanks, Jack.”

How else can one explain the breakneck speed with which supplies were delivered?

African leaders need to learn to make friends not only with national leaders but also key global leaders of industry and foundations. The world has changed. African leaders must wake up and adapt. Make friends with the likes of Jack Ma, Bill Gates and the other Foundation leaders. What has been learned today is that when the going gets tough, the likes of Jack Ma will get Africans through the tough times faster and in a more timely manner than any government can.

It is like the old song, “I am gonna make it with a little help from my friends.”

  1. PM Abiy demonstrated how Medemer philosophy can bring all Africans together against a common enemy.

What amazed me the most is the fact that PM Abiy did not call Jack Ma to ask him for medical supplies for Ethiopia only. I brood over this moral question as I write this piece: Would I even consider turning over a small batch of the medical supplies Jack Ma sent over to my other African brothers and sisters or will I keep it all for my Ethiopian brothers and sisters?

To be perfectly honest, I think I would fail that moral test miserably.

I will be honest. If it were up to me, I would call up Jack and say, “Help me save my people.” My thinking would probably be, “Let the other African leaders fend for themselves. I am responsible only for my own people.”

PM Abiy manifestly believes saving Ethiopia alone from COVID-19 would not be possible. COVID-19 knows no borders. There is no wall anyone can build around Ethiopia to keep out the Coronavirus Army. No amount of medical supplies could save Ethiopia alone.

I realized why PM Abiy wanted an African Maginot Line, not an Ethiopian one, to keep out the Coronavirus Army.

In his Nobel lecture, PM Abiy said:

Growing up, my parents instilled in me and my siblings, an abiding faith in humanity. Medemer resonates with the proverb, “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.” [There is] a saying shared in many African languages, which means, “For you to have a peaceful night, your neighbor shall have a peaceful night as well.”

When PM Abiy asked Jack Ma for help, he understood the only way we can fight and win against the Coronavirus Army is if we adopt the motto, “Yes, I am my African brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.”

For Ethiopia to be defended from the curse of COVID-19, all of Africa must be defended from COVID-19. Indeed, the whole human race.

That is the quintessence of Medemer for me in the war against COVID-19: ONE Ethiopia for ALL Africa. ALL of Africa for ONE Ethiopia.

I am so proud of PM Abiy. Ethiopians are blessed to have a leader who looks out not only for Ethiopia but all of Africa.

  1. In fighting COVID-19, we need African leaders that see Africa not as 54 states but as ONE continent with 54 states.

We need African leaders who see Africa’s fate and destiny in the same way Dr. Martin Luther King saw the destiny of humanity:

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…

In a real sense, All Africans are interrelated. Whatever affects Africa will inevitably affect Ethiopia.

Whatever affects Ethiopia will inevitably affect Africa.

Ethiopia and Africa, Africa and Ethiopia are tied in a single garment of destiny. They will sink or float together.

It reminds me of John Donne’s poem, “No Man is an Island.”

I say, no African country is an island.

Paraphrasing Donne’s poem:

No African country is an island entire of itself; every country
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a country be washed away by the sea, Africa  
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death in Africa diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind in Africa.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the coronavirus bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

  1. A leader with strategic thinking skills could anticipate emerging problems and act proactively and preventively 

There is an old saying, “A stitch in time saves nine.” The metaphor is intended to suggest it is better to act or deal with problems immediately, because if you wait and deal with them later, things will get worse and the problems will take longer to deal with.

What PM Abiy and Jack Ma tried to do was nip the spread of the COVID-19 threat in the bud, in its infancy, before the full invasion, not sit around in Lala Land saying, “It’s all under control.”

Although Africa has 1.2 billion people, as of this writing 46 African states have reported a total of 3,426 positive cases and 94 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We have over 320 million people in America.

“My president” Donald Trump, who lives at the White House in Washington, D.C. when he is not on exoplanet Gliese 581c, says “it is all under control and all will be back to business as usual by April 12.”

As of this writing (today), as Trump dithers and blathers about a coronavirus under control, the U.S. has 141,732 coronavirus cases and 2,471 deaths.

It is sad that Trump is more interested in saving his reelection chances than American lives. C’est la vie!

Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought Ethiopia will teach a lesson to America in anything, least of all control of a global epidemic.

The great Bob Dylan was right in his song, “The Times they are A-changin.’

The curse it is cast/The slow one now
Will later be fast/ As the present now
Will later be past/ The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

The Coronavirus curse is cast.

Ethiopia always the slow one, always the last one, is today the first one, the first responder, the fastest one in Africa to lead the life and death struggle  in the war against coronavirus!

  1. Ethiopian Airlines, the New Spirit of Africa, “Africa’s Air Force in the War on Coronavirus”, spreads its wings to protect the continent.

I am so proud of Ethiopian Airlines, its leadership, the pilots, mechanics and cabin crew. They are the best. Skytrax 2019 World Airlines Awards says Ethiopian Airlines is the “Best Airline in Africa” for the third consecutive year.

Ethiopian Airlines is an independent corporation that does not receive a penny from the government budget.

I have met and discussed the glorious history and future prospects of the airline with CEO Tewolde Gebre Mariam (no relation) when I visited Ethiopia in February. A couple of weeks ago, Ethiopian Airlines sent an all-female crew to Washington, D.C. on “Women’s Day”. I wrote a piece in celebration of that extraordinary event which I hope to share soon.

What is so amazing to me is the fact that Ethiopian Airlines undertook the task of distributing the medical supplies of all African countries with out asking a penny in return from any African country. These are extremely hard times for the airlines industry globally and Ethiopian is no exception. But Ethiopian Airlines was more interested in saving human lives than saving its bottom line. I am so proud of them!

I take my hat off to Ethiopian Airlines!

Ethiopia’s long-term strategy to deal with the economic and social fallout of the COVID-19 crises

On March 24, 2020, PM Abiy proposed a three-point plan to the G-20 to proactively deal with the inevitable the economic and social fallout of the coronavirus crises in Africa.

The first prong of the plan is an “Africa Global COVID-19 Emergency Financing Package.” This proposal would tackle head on the crushing USD 44 billion interest payment African countries are carrying today on their outstanding loans, which exceeds the continental budget for all health care expenses. The proposed financial relief plan would include USD 150 billion for increased budgetary support from the World Bank and balance of support payments from the International Monetary Fund. It would also require trade financing, working capital support, etc. from the International Finance Corporation.

The second prong consists of a Global Health Emergency Package which would engage the World Health Organization in strengthening the public health sector in Africa by increasing emergency preparedness and financing of health equipment purchases by the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and malaria.

The third prong proposes writing off of all interest payment to government loans, partial debt write-off for low-income countries and conversion of the remaining debt into long term low interest loans with 10 years grace period before payment. Moreover, all debt repayments will be limited to 10% of the value of exports.

Africa’s #2 enemy today, after coronavirus, is crushing foreign debt

The total amount of external debt for the continent is estimated at USD $417bn.

Nearly one-half of all sub-Saharan African countries are said to be on the verge of insolvency unable to service their debts and with little change of paying it all.

The World Bank has classified 18 African countries as at high risk of debt distress, where debt-to-GDP ratios surpass 50%.

PM Abiy’s three-point plan is both a wake up call for all African countries of an impending doom catalyzed by the coronavirus crises and a clarion call to the G-20 that without their help 1.2 billion people will likely face death, destruction and hardship of unimaginable magnitude.

The handwriting is on the wall.

African leaders should rally behind PM Abiy and aggressively push the three-point plan before the G-20.

The alternative is to watch Africa careening towards the cliff like a runaway train.

In May 2018, I wrote a prophetic commentary entitled, “Ethiopia Shall Rise!” noting, “A new day is dawning over the horizon and Ethiopia is rising. Let us all rise and shine in the Land of 13-Months of Sunshine.”

I am so proud Ethiopia is rising and shining over all of Africa by becoming the first responder when Africa is about to go into triage.

I am so proud Ethiopia is taking leadership for the continent’s long-term viability by proposing a three-point plan to deal with the inevitable economic and social fallout of the coronavirus crises.

Above all, I am so proud Ethiopia is teaching the world, “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper. For you to have a peaceful night, your neighbor shall have a peaceful night as well.”

For Ethiopia to win the war against coronavirus, all Africa – indeed the human race —  must win the war against coronavirus.

Thank you, PM Abiy.

Thank you CEO Jack Ma and the Jack Ma Foundation.

Thank you, Ethiopian Airlines, “Africa’s Air Force in the War on Coronavirus”.


  1. They probably don’t call him “Abiy” for nothing. The man is worth his salt; the Nobel Peace Prize too.

  2. Dear Prof. That is good His Excellency PM Dr. Abiy
    is trying to play a leadership role in Africa in the war against COVID-19. I wish our foriegn policy is designed in such a way to look from inside to outside. Our forign policy should focuss more on intetnal drivers that we may have more direct control than external drivers. I beilive in that we need to follow a little bit a closed foreign policy to build our negotioable capacity with our indegeneous kmowledge and experiances before we exposed ourselves to the more competitive and unpredictable global situation.
    Stay Blessed !

  3. Ästhetik,

    ተወደደም ተጠላም ኢትዮጵያን ወክሎ እስከቀረበ ጊዜ ድረስ፣ ምንም እንኳን ‘ሙሴን’ ባታስመስሉት፣ ግን ትንሽ ቆፍጠን ያለ የሃገሩ ተቆርቋሪ የሚያስመስለውን አይነት ፎቶ አውጡ እንጂ፣ እንዲያው ወደ DC ለንግድ ጉዳይ ብቅ ያለውን የ’COPACABANA STRAND ZUHÄLTER’ን አይነት ነገር አታስመስሉት እንጂ..!! The DC’ዎች፣ እንዲህ አይነቱ ተይዞ የማይያዝ ኢትዮጵያዊው የሳለውን Naive Malerei ካየ በኋላ እኮ ነው ሄግል (Hegel), “ስእሉ ሰአሊውን ለመጠየቅ እድል ቢያገኝ ኖሮ፣ ለምንድነው ነብስና ሂይወት የሌለኝ ነገር አድርገህ የፈጠርከኝ፣ ብሎ ይጠይቀው ነበር” ብሎ የፅጻፈው::

  4. Forget foreign help. The only sure way to defeat COVID-19 is to stop the transmission of the virus. It can be stopped in the person it has infected if (1) we maintain a distance of 2 metres from each other at all times, at the same time wearing masks, and (2) we don’t touch our mouth, nose and eyes under no circumstances as they are the venues the virus enters bodies.
    The virus doesn’t enter bodies through hands.

  5. The virus has no wings to fly.people are the only vehicless it uses to transmit.
    The only sure way to stop the spread of viruses is to limit contact with people to the minimum,wash hands with soap,avoid touching surfaces(apparently coronavirus can remain on plastic for upto 5 days)and
    total lockdown.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.