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Q&A: How Ethiopia's health minister is preparing for coronavirus

by Emeline Wuilbercq | @EmWuilbercq | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 4 May 2020 17:29 GMT

Ethiopia's Health Minister Liya Tadesse monitors the unloading of medical donation from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundation to Africa for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing, upon arrival at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

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Lia Tadesse, Ethiopia's new health minister, talks to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the measures being rolled out to keep the country safe

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By Emeline Wuilbercq

ADDIS ABABA, May 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lia Tadesse became Ethiopia's health minister in mid-March, a day before the East African nation registered its first case of the new coronavirus.

As the pandemic takes hold in Africa - Ethiopia has 140 cases and neighbouring Kenya more than 450  - Tadesse talked to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the race to protect refugees, women and other vulnerable people  from the virus.

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Are you concerned that Ethiopia's fragile health system could soon be overwhelmed?

If we get a lot of cases - and more severe cases - then that will definitely overwhelm the system. We are seeing this happen, not only in Ethiopia, but across the world.

We are preparing as best we can: increasing our intensive care unit capacity and dedicating more ventilators to treatment facilities in Addis Ababa and other regions.

The ventilators we have are still low in number - around 221 for COVID-19 - but we hope to get more soon.

We are working with countries to secure more aid.

Is there a risk that banning large gatherings and imposing social distancing will exacerbate social inequality?  

While we're trying to prevent COVID, we don't want people to die of other problems. The government is preparing social protections.

Most businesses and major projects are continuing to sustain the economy and daily workers.

The government is supporting vulnerable people affected by the measures through distributing food across the country.

Is the deployment of thousands of female community health workers across the country to educate and screen individuals working?

It's in progress. We only started this recently so we're hoping it will really support our COVID response.

Early detection is a key point for the mitigation of the epidemic.

These health workers are wearing masks and gloves and doing house-to-house surveillance to identify possible symptoms like fevers and coughs and to establish people's recent travel.

The health workers are also identifying people who have other illnesses but have not sought medical attention due to fears of the COVID epidemic.

Can girls and women still access sexual and reproductive health services?

Initially our communication was more focused on COVID-19 awareness but now we are also communicating key services like reproductive health.

Community health workers are ensuring that women are aware these services are available and that some like family planning can be accessed in their households.

Across the country we are educating about harmful practices like female genital mutilation and gender-based violence. It is a priority.

Are you concerned about Ethiopia’s ability to contain the disease in refugee camps?

Refugees and internally displaced people are one of the vulnerable populations we are looking at working with.

We are working with different partners like the Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs and the U.N.'s migration agency to ensure that these communities have the necessary health screening and that we are keeping them safe through measures like hand-washing.

This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.

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No bed of roses: East Africa's female flower workers lose jobs as coronavirus hits exports

(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)