The challenge of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic is immense for poor countries like Eritrea. Eritrea has always depended on its people in responding to crises situations.1Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban, “Eritrean President Likens Coronavirus to ‘Sudden War’ of Historic Dimension,” Africanews, April 18, 2020, https://www.africanews.com/2020/04/18/eritrea-s-coronavirus-rules-chinese-italians-iranians-to-be-quarantined/. This time, Eritreans are being effectively mobilized to confront the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 21, 2020, Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, confirmed the news that an Eritrean who had returned from Norway had become the country’s first case of Covid-19. Eritrea announced and implemented a twenty-one-day nationwide lockdown beginning April 2.2“Eritrea Enforces 21-Day Lockdown to Contain Spread of COVID-19,” Xinhua News, April 2, 2020, March 21, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-04/02/c_138941459.htm. This was in addition to previously announced measures including the closure of airports, seaports, and land borders.
Following the information minister’s announcement of the index case, a number of people who returned from business trips to the Arab Gulf region were found to have tested positive for Covid-19. According to Eritrea’s Ministry of Health, as of April 30, the number of people that tested positive for Covid-19 stood at thirty-nine, out of which twenty-six had recovered, while no Covid-19 related deaths were reported. As of March 11, travelers on flights that originated from or transited through China, Italy, South Korea, and Iran were immediately quarantined upon arrival at the airport. According to the report of the Eritrean High Level Task Force (HLF) on Covid-19, within three days of confirming the first case, 1,660 Eritrean nationals who returned from foreign travels were quarantined for twenty-one days.
The HLF on Covid-19 issued a series of preventive and restrictive guidelines banning public gatherings such as sports, social, and cultural events (weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc.) that involve assemblies of more than ten people. Cinemas and nightclubs were closed, and clear instructions were issued for social distancing adherence. The HLF on Covid-19, in coordination with the Ministry of Health, took charge of issuing guidelines and directing the implementation of the lockdown. On April 1, 2020, the HLF issued new guidelines for a three-week lockdown from April 2 to 22.3Eritrean Ministry of Information, “Guidelines from the High Level Task Force on COVID-19,” April 1, 2020, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/30407-guidelines-from-the-high-level-task-force-on-covid-19. This was later extended beyond April 22 and will be reviewed based on the monitoring of infection rates. The guidelines instruct all citizens to stay at home, and no more than two people are allowed to leave the house to shop for essential food items. All trading activities have been banned. However, food production, supply, and processing enterprises as well as grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks remain open. Schools and religious shrines are also closed, and religious leaders of the Christian and Islamic faiths have been issued instructions guiding how, where, and when to exercise religious obligations.
All government institutions have been instructed to cease regular services and instead focus on essential developmental and security matters. The majority of public sector workers have been ordered to stay at home. Nonessential travel and commercial transportation within the country are banned. Certain portions of the private and service sectors (manufacturing, food processing, construction, trucking) remain operational. Citizens in rural areas are expected to continue with their daily activities of farming and animal husbandry.
The guidelines also include the prohibition of hoarding or overcharging prices for goods in a bid to take advantage of scarcities related to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to staying at home, everyone is expected to observe social distancing guidelines. Only those with officially issued permits are allowed to carry out essential public and private duties. Anyone found violating these guidelines faces severe punishment. For instance, the municipal government of Massawa announced, on 23 April, “that 104 retailers of vegetables and fruits as well as consumer goods and other trade activities have been fined over 250,000 Nakfa.”4Eritrean Ministry of Information, “Call for Practicing Guidelines on COVID-19,” April 23, 2020, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/30483-call-for-practicing-guidelines-on-covid-19.
National Popular Mobilization and Contributions
Although the lockdown has been well received and the rules widely respected, it has affected the economic lives of most citizens. The poor and most vulnerable, who eke out a living every day by working in the streets, are the most affected. To mitigate the adverse economic effects of the lockdown, as well as to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, popular mobilization and fundraising campaigns have been initiated within and outside the country. Daily announcements by the Ministries of Information and Health confirm the massive amounts of cash and in-kind contributions by public and private sector workers, businesses, peasants, the military, towns, villages, etc. Neighborhoods also distribute food items to those who are struggling to meet their daily food needs. The sense of solidarity and eagerness to help are truly amazing. Such popular mobilizations are common in Eritrea’s past. For example, during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea (1998-2000), public fundraising played a decisive role in mobilizing resources for Eritrea’s defense. During today’s pandemic, while there have been reports of traders who have tried to increase food prices, such actions are rare and have been severely punished. Another aspect of popular mobilization has included a series of public campaigns to raise people’s awareness about the pandemic. These include musical programs, short plays, or “corona-traffic” performances, where known actors play the role of traffic police making sure social distancing is respected, that is, by “performing” it publicly.
Contributions of the Diaspora to Eritrea’s Fight against Covid-19
Eritreans in the diaspora have mobilized to contribute to the fight against the pandemic. Members of the Eritrean diaspora from all over the world—the US, Canada, continental Europe, the UK, the Arab Gulf region, New Zealand, Australia, and other African countries—have formed an international task force to coordinate their contributions. According to the Eritrean Embassy in the US, within two weeks, Eritreans residing in the US had raised a total of over USD 4 million.5Eritrean Ministry of Information, “Contributions by Nationals in the Diaspora,” April 16, 2020, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/30462-contribution-by-nationals-in-diaspora-.
Eritreans in the diaspora have a long history of mobilization and fundraising for various purposes back home. During the liberation struggle of the 1960s, Eritrean diaspora communities across the world were very active in supporting the national liberation movement. During the war between Eritrean and Ethiopia (1998-2000), when the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea and the country suffered international isolation, the diaspora communities played a very important role in supporting the country. Referring to this long history of support by its diaspora, the Eritrean Ambassador to the UK stated that Eritreans are used to raising money to support their home country. Therefore, the recent mobilization by Eritreans in the diaspora to support the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is part of a longstanding tradition.
Eritrea currently has the lowest Covid-19 infection and death rates in the Horn of Africa. The drastic measures taken by the authorities immediately after the first case of Covid-19 infection contributed to this success in preventing the virus’s spread in the country. It is also significant that most people have complied with the instructions and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health. The mobilization of people inside and outside the country to contribute financially and in kind has been a critical factor in mitigating the adverse economic effects of the pandemic. Also, Eritrea’s long history of mobilizing resources and support for efforts to address various crises has complemented the current massive popular support for Eritrea’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
- 1Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban, “Eritrean President Likens Coronavirus to ‘Sudden War’ of Historic Dimension,” Africanews, April 18, 2020, https://www.africanews.com/2020/04/18/eritrea-s-coronavirus-rules-chinese-italians-iranians-to-be-quarantined/.
- 2“Eritrea Enforces 21-Day Lockdown to Contain Spread of COVID-19,” Xinhua News, April 2, 2020, March 21, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-04/02/c_138941459.htm.
- 3Eritrean Ministry of Information, “Guidelines from the High Level Task Force on COVID-19,” April 1, 2020, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/30407-guidelines-from-the-high-level-task-force-on-covid-19.
- 4Eritrean Ministry of Information, “Call for Practicing Guidelines on COVID-19,” April 23, 2020, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/30483-call-for-practicing-guidelines-on-covid-19.
- 5Eritrean Ministry of Information, “Contributions by Nationals in the Diaspora,” April 16, 2020, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/30462-contribution-by-nationals-in-diaspora-.