Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus The Article Core Values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

Ethiopia's returnees fueling fear of virus spread

Return of 30,000 Ethiopians fueling fear of virus spread by SIMON MARKS THE NEW YORK TIMES | August 2, 2020 at 3:46 a.m.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Unemployed and shunned as possible coronavirus carriers, Ethiopian migrant laborers are returning home by the thousands, placing a huge strain on Ethiopia's poorly equipped medical system.

More than 30,000 workers have reentered Ethiopia since mid-March, according to the government, some of them after suffering abuse and detention in unhealthy conditions in the countries they left, often on the Persian Gulf or in other parts of Africa.

At least 927 migrant laborers were infected with the virus when they returned, Ethiopian officials say, but the true number is probably much higher. The government has not updated that figure for more than a month, and it does not include those who have slipped back into the country unnoticed.

Ethiopia has had more than 17,500 confirmed infections and 274 covid-19 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Those are very low counts for a nation of 115 million people, but the numbers are rising and many cases go undetected by the country's sparse testing.

Doctors fear the outbreak may be primed to explode, fueled in part by returning migrants whose journeys often include crowded, unsanitary conditions -- jails in the countries where they worked, informal migrant camps in countries like Yemen and Djibouti and quarantine centers once they arrive back in Ethiopia.

Dr. Yohanes Tesfaye, who runs a government covid-19 treatment center near the eastern city of Dire Dawa, said that within a month of opening, the center had treated 248 infected migrants. And, he warned, "we have a long border, so we can't be sure" whether many more people with the virus are entering the country undetected.

All this is occurring in a country that has just one respiratory therapist, ill-equipped public hospitals and few medical resources in rural areas, and is also suffering the economic blow of the pandemic. Major hotels in the capital city, Addis Ababa, are almost empty, jobs in tourism and construction have disappeared and the flow of money sent home by workers overseas has dried up.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage »]

Adding to Ethiopia's struggles have been deadly conflicts among ethnic groups that prompted the government to shut down the internet for more than three weeks before recently restoring it. Hundreds of people died in clashes and anti-government protests after the killing in June of the singer Hachaluu Hundessa, who was particularly revered by the Oromo ethnic group.

Many of the migrants have returned voluntarily, suddenly unable to work abroad after the pandemic shut down entire economies. Whether out of economic hardship or fear of contagion, employers have laid off migrant domestic workers, often leaving them at their countries' embassies.

But many others have been rounded up, confined and deported by host governments that had previously tolerated them. In interviews, senior government officials, doctors, health workers and more than a dozen returnees from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Djibouti and Lebanon describe scenes of workers being mistreated in detention before being sent back to Ethiopia.

"The police were throwing racial slurs at us. They called me an animal," said Selam Bizuneh, 26, who worked as a maid in Kuwait until her employer stopped paying her. She said she spent 40 days in a detention center in Kuwait City's al-Farwaniyah district in May and June, adding, "we were roughed up and forced to stand."

Shortly after arriving back in Ethiopia in late June, she said, she tested positive for the coronavirus.

Birhan Tesfay, 27, left Ethiopia hoping to find work in Saudi Arabia, but turned back as the pandemic spread. He said he paid smugglers $300 to cross the Red Sea from Yemen to Djibouti in the middle of the night on June 5.

"We were shot at by Djibouti's navy on our way back," he said in a telephone interview from a quarantine center. "One migrant died while the smugglers attempted to escape."

His account was verified by a United Nations staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss it. Tesfay was arrested by Djiboutian security forces and returned to Ethiopia.

Before the pandemic, about 100,000 Ethiopians made the perilous trip each year to other parts of the world to find work -- often illegally -- as maids, construction workers, drivers, hairdressers, guards and more. The largest number make their way to the Arabian Peninsula, though workers also have been sent back this year by Lebanon, India, Pakistan, the United States, Kenya and other countries.


Sponsor Content