Coronavirus and mobility: Observations from Northeast Africa

Published 5 November 2020 / By Günther Schlee

Back to Articles

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


On 10 March, 2020, I left Ethiopia for Sudan to pursue my research, for what I expected to be a three-week break from teaching. Things turned out differently.

Sudan closed its borders and the airport as a precaution against the spread of the corona virus, and Arba Minch University (AMU) in southern Ethiopia, where I am a based as a professor of social anthropology, closed down as well. The students were sent home. Assuming this might be the last opportunity for a long time, I took a charter flight, organized by the German Embassy, back to Germany on 5 April. Ironically, this kind of evacuation took me from a country in which confirmed cases of infection with the virus were in the single digits to a country which due to exponentially rising figures had gone into a lockdown. I was collected at the airport by my daughter and her friend, who took turns driving through the night. It was the first time in my life I saw hundreds of kilometres of almost empty Autobahn.

What kind of research can one do in such a situation?

I was in constant, active exchange with my students in Ethiopia by email, commenting on their papers, which they sent me. As an additional assignment I asked them to keep ‘corona diaries’ at their respective locations. Theses locations had a good and relatively even spread over a region bordering my own research sites in northern Kenya and eastern Sudan (also on the map). This distribution looks as if it had been done by intentional regional sampling.

Researcher's locations in Ethiopia from north to south: Pawi in Beni Shangul (Yohannes Yitbarek), Hayk in Sotu Wollo (Saleh Seid), Gambella (Loang Chuol), Worabe in Silte (Shafi Muze), Sodo in Wolaita (Medhin Dogiso), Hosana in Hadiya (Solomon Erjabo), Arba Minch, the university town (Biritu Girma and Kansite Gelebo Korra), Konso (Kebede Geletu). The orange dots outside Ethiopia represent my own research locations, Abu Na’ama in Sudan and Korr in northern Kenya.

The areas were predominantly Orthodox Christian, Protestant or Muslim. From their reports I could extract comparisons about who blamed whom for the spread of the virus on religious and moral grounds, (due to the eating of ‘unclean’ foods). Where these moral discourses addressed China or the West, they acquired an anti-imperialist tone.

They also report the plight that migrants face in the crisis. Furthermore, an MA student, Solomon Erjabo, reports from Hosana, a town in Hadiya region, how those who managed to get back there from major cities like Addis Ababa were not welcome at all. Some of them had walked distances to get home, others had travelled by motorbike taxi. As motorcycle taxi business was forbidden as well, it was done by night. Their home areas did not welcome them. As they had no livelihoods, they were suspected of surviving by theft.

Wollo, from where Saleh Seid reports, like much of northern Ethiopia, is a source of international migration to the Gulf countries. Returning migrants used to be the heroes of the community, bringing gifts. Now many of them returned due to lack of employment. Others were dumped by their employers at the Ethiopian embassies in the respective Arab countries. After their return, the numbers of infections in Ethiopia rose, and the return migrants were stigmatized as the spreaders of disease.

From the various accounts it is clear that the precautions against the spread of the virus in terms of restricting mobility and vacating public spaces had immediate economic effects, especially for people in precarious employment such as casual labourers and hawkers. The dependents of these workers such as children and elderly parents find themselves in even more precarious situations. In such cases, malnutrition and increased mortality from other diseases might be the immediate consequences of anti-corona measures.

This chicken market in Arba Minch shows many people in close interaction. Only one person wears a mask. (Biritu Girma, September 2020)

In Ethiopia, elections have been postponed and in Sudan people are dissatisfied with the low speed of the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. In both cases the corona virus is blamed by the Government as a reason for these delays, and many people conclude that the pandemic at least under certain regional conditions is not so much a reality as an excuse. The climatic factors like the variation in temperature and humidity are part of popular discourses on how the virus spreads. While Science has not come to definite conclusions on these issues, many locals speculate that the precautions against the spread of the virus in Northeast Africa may have done more harm than the virus could ever have done.

Günther Schlee is Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany.