Coronavirus: Ethiopia under pressure to cancel flights to China amid outbreak

Calls to suspend Asia services, including one from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, come as deaths linked to the virus increase worldwide

An Ethiopian Boeing 737 flight leaves the hanger in Nairobi on January 26, 2010. The crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet, in which 90 people are feared dead on January 25, 2010, comes as a blow to a company considered the jewel of Ethiopia's industry and tipped for exponential growth. AFP PHOTO/SIMON MAINA (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
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As Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s most profitable carrier, reluctantly suspends flights to Milan and Bahrain over the spread of the Covid-19 virus, it is business as usual to its Chinese destinations.

Other regional carriers, including Kenyan Airways, paused all flights to China more than a month ago.

The airline has received high-profile calls to suspend its flights to China, one of which came from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, as deaths linked to the virus increased worldwide.

Ahmed Kellow, a former chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines, told The National: "The airlines should not take a huge risk by flying to countries like China which are highly affected by the virus."

Earlier this month, Tewolde GebreMariam, the airline’s current chief executive, downplayed the risk of flying to the South Asian nation, to which it operates 35 weekly flights, and said cancelling flights there would not slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

“This is because passengers from China can travel to African countries including Ethiopia through various other hubs,” he said. “That’s what the interconnected world means.”

In recent weeks, passenger numbers on the government-owned airline have dropped by 20 per cent; its cargo business has also dipped.

Ethiopia has officially reported nine confirmed cases of the virus, among them in Japanese citizens and one British person. Thirty-four people have been quarantined while they wait for their results and 992 people have been asked to self-isolate.

In response to the virus, the East African nation has banned mass gatherings, public events and suspended school. National exams have also been postponed.

The nation has allocated $10 million (Dh36.7m) to combat the virus for a population of more than 100 million.

"The African airline industry is facing the 'perfect storm'. The virus is causing tourism travel to Africa to decline very significantly," Zemedeneh Negatu, the chairman of investment firm Fairfax Africa Fund, told The National.

Mr Negatu is a strategic adviser to some of the largest African airlines, including Ethiopian Airlines.

“Meanwhile, business travel, too, is declining as the demand for Africa’s main commodity exports such as oil has collapsed, resulting in fewer trade and investment transactions and, therefore, less business travel.”

The epidemic has so far affected Ethiopia’s booming economy, including the filling of the dam, which is under construction in the midst of a dispute with Egypt and is expected to be delayed by a shortage of raw materials that were to have been imported from China.

Figures from the Central Bank of Ethiopia show the country imported close to $4 billion worth of goods from China last year, while its annual exports to the world’s most populous country were about $250m.

Ethiopia has accumulated overwhelming debts linked to big construction projects including railways, airports and national industrial parks.