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Ethiopia: Mehret Debebe and his radio station spread awareness to stay ahead of Coronavirus

What does the Coronavirus mean for Ethiopia? Has the world ever asked itself this question?

According to the World Bank’s statistics, Ethiopia has just one doctor for every 10,000 people - a ratio that's half of neighbouring Kenya's, four times lower than Nigeria's and nine times lower than South Africa's.

Yet, lots of questions and concerns come from Ethiopian people, as farmers in remote regions wonder how they should prepare - and in some cases whether the virus is even real.

Image credit Yahoo News

This is the reason why every weekday at noon, radio host Mehret Debebe heads to his studio for a live call-in show devoted to a single topic: Ethiopia and Covid-19.

The answers? Coming from abroad, as Mehret has taken to stacking his guest list with Ethiopian doctors based worldwide, often in countries like the United States that have been hit much harder by the pandemic.

“We are still in the pre-crisis phase, so I think learning from them would help a lot," Mehret, a US-trained psychiatrist, said of his diaspora guests. “We still don't know what the crisis will be like.”

Mehret's show is part of a broader effort to enlist those doctors to help his people by shaping the local response.

It is a fact that up until now, the global response to the pandemic has benefited from the work of Ethiopian doctors overseas, including aides to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - who is himself Ethiopian, though not a doctor - and emergency-room physicians in hotspots like New York.


Officially, 250 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Ethiopia, but experts warn the health system could easily become overwhelmed by a major surge.

Image credit News 24

"That's the worst-case scenario," said Dr Wubrest Tesfaye, Mehret's co-host. "Having the first-hand experience from a person who is at the front, responding to the highest outbreak crisis, would give us the right kind of information" on how to prepare.

It was late March when Tsion Firew, an Ethiopian emergency-room doctor based in Manhattan (New York), realised the pandemic could be as bad as anything she'd seen in her years of responding to conflicts and humanitarian disasters.

Tsion talked about her experience in New York to Mehret Debebe’s radio, saying that critical patients just kept coming, and the lack of information about the virus raised to fear and anxiety.

"I felt like I was back in Mosul," she recalled, referring to her time in the Iraqi city after it was liberated from the Islamic State group in 2017.

On a recent episode of Mehret's show, Tsion Firew talked about her constant involvement as a doctor in Manhattan. Tsion's time in New York, the worst-affected US city, has also informed her work on an Ethiopian government task force to fight the virus - which she does in the mornings before hospital shifts.

When she disagrees with Ethiopian officials, like when she thought they were moving too slowly to procure testing materials, she pushes back "powerfully".

"After seeing what I saw every day, the amount of death I saw every day, my tone changed," she said. "I became more pushy, even with the health minister."

By some estimates, 80% of households across Africa have a radio, making it a potentially powerful channel for communicating information. Image credit Simon Scott, Farm Radio International

Another recent guest on Mehret's show was Dawd Siraj, an Ethiopian expert on infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin.

He used his two appearances to explain the science behind the virus, shifting the conversation towards facts and away from what he described as “supernatural” narratives.

“The foundation of scientific research and the methods of reaching conclusions are solid. I want to explain this to the public in an easy, understandable way," he claimed.

Mehret said it's a welcoming and important message for Ethiopian people. Ethiopia is known to be a very religious country where many assume God will protect them from the disease.

“When it comes to Coronavirus," Mehret said, “people think God will take care of it because they don't see it.”

Like Tsion, Dawd is a member of the health ministry's Coronavirus task force. He also serves on a diaspora advisory council established by Fitsum Arega, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's former chief of staff and Ethiopia's current ambassador in Washington.

The council's strategy to fight Covid-19 points out how it will use “experiences learned from around the world” to help with everything from sourcing personal protective equipment to preparing for possible lockdowns should the situation in Ethiopia worsen.

Image credit BBC

“The key is to get ahead of the virus. Timing is fundamental” the document reads.

Last week, Mehret interviewed with Wondwossen G Tekle, an Ethiopian endovascular neurologist at the University of Texas who recently came down with, and recovered from, Covid-19.

Along with the symptoms - the aches, the chills, the loss of taste and smell - Wondwossen described the importance of prevention in keeping Ethiopia's caseload under control.

Though the total number of infected people remains low, there are now dozens of cases of community spread, and officials warned that complacency could undermine containment.

Mehret hopes his listeners got from Wondwossen's story that “this thing can catch anyone, and you can recover”. But he also wants them to recognise the importance of persistent vigilance.


"I think the virus is giving us time because maybe Covid-19 knows we don't have enough preparation,” Mehret said. "But if we keep having all this time without preparing, when the pandemic will hit us, I think shame on us,” concluded Mehret.

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