News analysis

Amid lockdown fears, COVID-19 threatens Ethiopia’s urban poor

For many Ethiopians already struggling to make ends meet, the prospect of not being able to work is a bigger worry than the coronavirus

When Mesele Geletu and his friends escaped the hard life outside Arba Minch in Southern Nations and moved to Addis Ababa five years ago, they could not have imagined that life in Ethiopia’s capital would be an even greater struggle for survival. From ‘illegal’ street vending to working at construction sites, the search for a steady income has been the primary focus of their lives.

Now in his mid-twenties, Mesele’s job shining shoes in the city has provided barely enough to survive.  For the past month, however, that survival has been in double jeopardy—this is the age of COVID-19.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world to Africa, it has begun to take root in Ethiopia. Shortly after the first two deaths from the virus were reported on 5 April, the government declared a five-month nationwide emergency and a month of national prayer.  By today, 140 cases have been confirmed in the country, with three fatalities.

The central government has also instituted a number of preventive measures.  Land borders are closed to all-but essential consignments; 14-day quarantine has been introduced; non-violent prisoners have been released; schools, churches, and mosques closed; social gatherings and transport services have been limited; and a flexible state of emergency enacted.

But as the number of cases rises by the day—albeit not exponentially—the mounting fear among the Ethiopian working poor is how they can survive if the current social distancing practices are followed by stronger restrictions. The virus has driven home the reality of their vulnerability.

“I cannot survive without coming to my job every day,” Mesele says. “Total lockdown means an existential threat, as I am already losing my random customers from the street.”.

Mesele and his friends work around the congested Megenagna Square, earning from 85 to 110 Ethiopian Birr (an average of $3.50) a day.  Much of that is spent on food. His monthly rent of 1,500 Birr is shared with two housemates.

Mesele Geletu at work; 8 April 2020; Yared Tsegaye

According to the Federal Jobs Creation Commission’s recent estimate, there are nearly 1.9 million self-employing businesses in Ethiopia’s cities. Most are in the informal service sector, like Mesele’s. Given the uncertainties of the COVID-19 crisis, the commission estimates conservatively that around 750,000 jobs could disappear in the next three months, most of them in the cities.

Another worry is that the true number of unemployed had been growing even before the coronavirus crisis. Many are suffering, but those in the informal sector are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, and those who were already on the edge are most in danger.

Selam Samuel, a single mother, still has her job as cashier at the Raey (Vision) cafe and restaurant on CMC road in Addis Ababa. She says being laid off would mean living on the street with her daughter.

“The future is scary. If a lockdown is forced or the restaurant tells me to stop the job, I cannot pay my house rent and have nowhere to go. Even if I want to stay at my parent’s place, they are very poor and rely on me,” she explains to Ethiopia Insight.

Raey Café’s owner Nega Abebe has built a business known throughout the area for the variety of dishes it serves. “We used to sell about 600-700 meals a day with injera. Now we are selling up to 150,” he says. One menu item with injera sells for between 50 and 70 birr, depending on the spice it is served with.

Nega fears that if the coronavirus crisis drags on, it might force the restaurant to lay-off staff. So far, he has chosen to keep his employees because he sees them “as a family” and knows their financial problems.

“We can only trust God,” Nega said with a sad voice. “Hunger is cruel, and it can turn people opposite to their true nature. This is upon all of us with the COVID-19.”.

Bigger companies, such as the East African Bottling Company, which distributes Coca-Cola locally, have been forced to downsize the number of casual employees at their bottling plant in Addis, adding to the numbers of jobless in this precarious urban economy. But these same companies are donating to the fight against the virus and support to the needy.

Some Ethiopian regions have already tasted the pain of lockdowns. Amhara, after cases of COVID-19 were reported, issued an order limiting movement in parts of cities and towns such as Bahir Dar and Enjibara; creating a strange scenario where people have jobs but no way to earn a living. “We could not go out to buy food even when we had money,” a resident told Ethiopia Insight before the region lifted the two-week ban on 14 April. The remove of those regional restrictions occurred after the federal government introduced a nationwide state of emergency.

Seemingly, the more serious lockdown measures taken by other regions are being eased. Tigray, which is at loggerheads with the central government and showing increasing signs of autonomy, is testimony to that. The move is an indicator of the inevitable effect of the COVID-19 fight on the poor, after Tigray saw the difficulties in the daily livelihoods of many Ethiopians.

Last week, in order to get business activities back on track, the region eased measures to allow people’s movement and transport activities within the range of a wereda. Beauty salons, shops, café and restaurants among others are now back to business, although closely watched by local officials.

Elsewhere, poor households living on meager incomes were already feeling the shock in their lives, comforted only by the belief that “this shall too pass”.  Still, imagine the anxiety of not knowing how long the restrictive measures would last, when hunger is a greater fear than the virus.

The poorest of the poor

“This is not the U.S.,” Ethiopia’s key finance minister, Eyob Tekalign, points out in explaining that Ethiopia does not have the deep pockets necessary to support everyone at this time of crisis. “You can’t go to the Congress with a two or three-hundred billion-dollar stimulus package and send checks out to individuals,” he said during a recent webinar titled “Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Ethiopia”.

The government has now tailored its response to the twin health and economic crises, while hoping the pandemic will be short lived. But so far, officials have not gone all-out to devise a pro-poor preventive strategy as an alternative to limiting the activity of poor households and medium businesses.

The term “poorest of the poor” has been used by consecutive Ethiopian administrations to refer to the most vulnerable. It is also employed in the current COVID-19 response plan. “The most ambitious mapping was done,” says Eyob, using Addis an example. “We know people who are highly vulnerable.”

But Eyob’s plans are small comfort among the urban poor, especially since the pandemic is expected to exacerbate the depths of poverty, not to mention the increasing numbers needing assistance in cities. We are now seeing cases in the Bole Sub-City, which includes 15 weredas within it, and is one of the ten sub-cities under the Addis Ababa City Administration.

By 15 April, Bole had identified 50,602 residents as economically vulnerable in the face of the pandemic, according to Tilahun Fekadu, the sub-city’s chief executive officer, who spoke to Ethiopia Insight while distributing an Easter gift from his administration.

Zereay Deres, communication team leader of the Bole Sub-City, said the list of economically vulnerable residents had come from the existing poverty rolls, and they would be reached “with food and financial resources collected”.

But that estimate apparently does not include ‘the new working poor’, those who had lost their jobs or been laid off since the pandemic arrived. Some complain about the screening process as it applies to the COVID-19 response. Selam Samuel is among those who fear that the government will fail to identify many of the real economic victims of COVID-19.

According to a Central Statistical Agency report in October 2018, nearly 19 million people comprised the urban population. Out of the total, 9.7 million were economically active, with 7.5 million of those people employed, many in the informal sector. That leaves 1.8 million unemployed and an urban unemployment rate of 19 percent, with youth unemployment higher.

The city administration’s Resource Mobilizing Committee is now working with the sub-cities to provide mainly non-cash items for the poor. In an interview with Ethiopia Insight, committee member Anchinesh Tesfaye, says preparations are underway to meet the expected surge in need.

“There is an existing system of the block (up to 100 households) identity. We have identified low-income households in that regard across 121 weredas and their calculated needs in line with what’s on hand,” she said.

Raey cafe staff pray for Ethiopia to be spared by COVID-19; 8 April 2020; Yared Tsegaye

Still, ambiguities abound with the screening. While screening those in need, some weredas across sub-cities mix figures with the existing World Bank backed Urban Safety Net Programme, which pays people to do tasks such as clean streets and pick litter.

According to data last year, there are about 604,000 beneficiaries in this program, with 6o percent receiving direct support, including cash injections. About 200,000 of these beneficiaries are in Addis Ababa. A recent letter from the Kolfe Keraniyo Sub-City Job Creation and Food Security Bureau commits beneficiaries to use half of their saving from the Urban Safety Net for emergency needs during COVID-19 and then to try and replenish the savings after the pandemic eases. Some beneficiaries said they had no idea how they would manage to do this.

The national COVID-19 resource mobilizing committee has also been stockpiling supplies in preparation for the worst, although there are some signs Ethiopia is set to avoid that. These resources are largely voluntary donations from individuals and groups rather than from the government. Ethiopian nationals abroad are also pitching in to support these efforts through the council leading the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund. These are believed to be disbursed all over the country, including in regional capitals like Adama, Hawassa, and other cities like Dire Dawa, which are home to the most vulnerable urban poor.

Recently, Addis Fortune reported that the Finance Ministry had filed an emergency funding request for 1.6 billion dollars to a donor consortium, the Development Assistance Group (DAG),  in anticipation of the potential impact of the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund has agreed to provide emergency financing of $411 million. The Fortune report noted the ministry had included an estimate that 10 million people would require emergency assistance if the number of victims of the virus grows significantly.

Banking on food banks

Since 13 March when the first COVID-19 patient was identified in Ethiopia, markets have been crowded. Everyone seems to be preparing for the worst. Supermarkets have been filled as those with money stock their baskets with whatever they can get. Poor people do not have that luxury.

Takele Uma, acting Addis Ababa Mayor, announced that the city is opening 1,200 “food banks”, mainly mobilized by individuals and organizations. Those are stocked with raw food items accumulated from the 10 sub-cities, which are being distributed upon direction, according to Anchinesh. On 13 April, the city administration said it plans to reach about 400,000 households with the food banks in service.

Most sub-cities also have food banks that carry primarily raw foods packed in bags. But the amounts being donated and the number of the beneficiaries identified vary widely among the woredas. For instance, there were 57 food banks at the Kirkos Sub-City with 85,000 beneficiaries identified and 67 food banks at Lideta Sub-city with about 17,000 beneficiaries identified, according to a report by the city administration-run Addis Media Network.

At a food bank Ethiopia Insight visited at the Kolfe Keraniyo Sub-City Wereda 9 and the Bole Sub-City, wealthy residents have been donating all sorts of food items such as spaghetti, macaroni, rice, and flour. Sill, considering the scale of poverty in the sub-city, some in the resource committee fear the existing supplies will not be enough if the crisis drags on for an extended period.

Messay Mulugeta, an Assistant Professor of Socio-economic Development and Food Security at Addis Ababa University College of Developmental Studies, worries that the existing response plans could fall far short if the pandemic accelerates, given that the existing realities of poverty have not subsided, and unemployment has jumped since the COVID-19 threat was first recognized.

In the process, says Messay, the government must make sure that citizens would get food in a worst-case scenario. Given the country’s precarious financial condition, he recommends that authorities “shift the budget already allocated for meal services in government universities and the school feeding programs, which would serve to cover some months”.

Messay says it is essential that an emergency package is in place that draws on the experience of other countries, and will be sufficient to sustain lives no matter what may happen.

For now, the situation remains under control, with the authorities sometimes saying no new cases were discovered in their daily announcements, but there are signs that the economic impact is adding to tensions and pressures.

In early April, Addis Ababa City Administration moved the biggest food market ‘Atikelt Tera’ (‘Vegetable Area’) to Jan Meda. A crammed market place, ‘Atikelt Tera’ was seen as a potential transmission risk for the coronavirus. By moving it to the expanses of Jan Meda (‘the King’s Field’), a recreation area, the government aimed to reduce risks.

But on 29 April, there was a conflict at Jan Meda between the authorities and alleged illegal traders. The incident left seven people injured, city police said. A local broadcaster reported fatalities, but police denied the claim. Now, the use of the temporary market place is being disputed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which holds Epiphany celebration at Jan Meda, potentially leading to further controversy.

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COVID-19 Situation Dashboard

Editors: Peter Heinlein, William Davison

Main photo: Main photo: A food bank was set up at the Bole Sub-City headquarters, located around Megenagna; 15 April 2020; Yared Tsegaye

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Yared Tsegaye

Yared is an Ethiopia Insight reporter based in Addis Ababa who has previously worked for Addis Standard and Addis Fortune.

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