"We fly to countries not only in good times"
Africa's largest airline, Ethiopian Airlines, has revealed that suspending flights to China would not end the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
Ethiopian Airlines operates 35 weekly flights to five destinations in China. Ethiopian was one of the few international airlines to launch flight to China in 1972. The airline on average transports 4,000 Chinese between China and Africa daily. Ethiopian serves Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Prior to the outbreak it had announced that it was planning to add three more destinations to China.
Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told The Reporter that his airline seconds the World Health Organization's (WHO) statement that states that isolating China is not a solution for the coronavirus outbreak. "As WHO clearly stated that suspending flights to China would not end the coronavirus outbreak as victims of the virus are located in other countries," Tewolde said.
Seventy percent of the Chinese passengers arriving Addis Ababa Bole International Airport transit to other African countries.
Tewolde said that the suspension of Ethiopian flights to China does not guarantee that the virus will not spread to Ethiopia. "Even if Ethiopian suspends flights to China other airlines would bring passengers to Ethiopia. Secondly, through Star Alliance, code share and interline agreements Ethiopian will transport passengers originating from China. We fly to Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Korea. So we will transport passengers transiting in these countries," he said. "Even if we stop flying to China, still, Chinese airlines can bring and feed us passengers in those countries. We daily fly to Bangkok. Thai Airways flies to China. If we stop flying to China, still, Thai would bring to us passengers from China," he said.
"We should not isolate China. We should not marginalize Chinese passengers. What we should do is screen passengers in accordance with the WHO guidelines," he added.
British Airways has suspended flights to China but Chinese airlines are flying to the UK. Middle East carriers has scaled down their operations to China. Emirates suspended flights to Shanghai and Guangzhou but continues flying to Beijing. Major Chinese carriers like China Southern which operates more than 800 aircraft, Air China and China Eastern fly to the US, Europe and Asia.
"If we stop flying to China we can still bring passengers from Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and that originated from China. So the most important thing is to strengthen the passenger screening mechanism and follow the WHO procedures," Tewolde said. He also underlined the need to ensure the wellbeing of the staff of the airline. "We need to avail proper protective materials. We have to protect our flight crew and all other our colleagues, our passengers and our people," he said.
According to Tewolde, Ethiopian is not an airline that flies to countries only at good times. "Ethiopian Airlines serves countries in good and bad times. When Ebola outbreak hits African countries we were there. During the civil war in Angola 30 years ago we used to fly to Luanda amidst exchange of fire near the airport. Because they are our brothers and sisters we have to stand by them. China has a strong trade and investment relationship with Africa. And Ethiopian Airlines is the major carrier that links China with many African countries. If we stops flights to China we break that relationship," he said.
Since the Ministry of Health began the flight screening at Addis Ababa Airport 1,500 Chinese passengers entered Ethiopia while 2,000 Chinese passengers transit to other African countries daily.
Tewolde said that Ethiopian Airlines is closely working with the Ministry of Health and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute.
Asked why Ethiopian Airlines did not suspend flights to China, the Director General of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute Doctor Eba Abate said that the coronavirus cases reported in the five cities that Ethiopian fly to is minimal. Eba said the institute has tightened the passenger screening at the Addis Ababa Airport and 27 checkpoints.
Body temperature of 47,167 passengers have been checked out of which 1,607 were from countries which reported cases of coronavirus. According to Dr. Eba, the institute is in the process to import the detergent used to test coronavirus.
The WHO has deplored the decision made by some countries to suspend flights to China saying that the action violets the International Health Regulation (IHR2005).
In a related news, the WHO this week announced that the launch of a 675 million fund to combat the spread of coronavirus.
To fight further spread of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak in China and globally, and protect states with weaker health systems, the international community has launched a USD 675 million preparedness and response plan covering the months of February through to April 2020.
"My biggest worry is that there are countries today who do not have the systems in place to detect people who have contracted with the virus, even if it were to emerge," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (PhD), WHO Director-General. "Urgent support is needed to bolster weak health systems to detect, diagnose and care for people with the virus, to prevent further human to human transmission and protect health workers."
Gate and Melinda Foundation pledged to support 100 million USD for the fight against the pandemic.