Addis Ababa becomes transit hub as richer nations compete aggressively for scarce kit.
Ethiopia has emerged as a key transit hub for the shipment of much sought-after medical equipment to Latin America, as poorer countries complain they are being muscled out of the market by richer nations and their cargo seized during refuelling stops in Europe and the US.
Authorities in the impoverished north-eastern Brazilian state of Maranhão switched to Ethiopia after they saw two cargoes of respirators purchased from China seized during refuelling stops in Europe and the US.
“There are market forces and government pressures at play, competition is fierce [to get medical equipment],” said Flávio Dino, the governor of Maranhão. After such “frustrations”, he added, he decided to bring equipment through Addis Ababa. Only then, he said, “deu certo” — it went right. “We said, ‘OK guys, you are in need of assistance, we are here in good times and bad times and we are going to support you’,” said Girum Abebe, director for Latin America at Ethiopian Airlines, the state-run airline.
Ethiopian Airlines, the main foreign currency earner of the east African country and considered Africa’s best- run carrier, has expanded rapidly in recent years. Before Covid, it was flying to 130 international destinations, transforming Addis Ababa into a transport hub alongside cities such as Johannesburg and Nairobi.
The airline, desperate to keep ticking over during the crisis, has offered cargo customers deep discounts. While passenger numbers have fallen by roughly 80 per cent, cargo has doubled, with 25 of the airline’s 130-strong fleet converted to carry freight, a senior official from the airline in Addis Ababa said. As a result, the airline was operating at 60-65 per cent of normal capacity, the official said. The airline has also opened new routes to Latin America in recent weeks.
The Brazilian federal government, a strong ally of the current US administration, has said it was also considering using Addis Ababa as a transit hub. Vale, the Brazilian mining company, has already been channelling donations of medical equipment bought in China through the Ethiopian capital.
Earlier this month, 250 respirators bought by the Brazilian state of São Paulo, and shipped by China Airlines, were “held up” while at a refuelling stop in New York, said governor João Doria.
“The respirators are still there,” he said, adding that they have now secured a new shipment that was coming through an “unspecified location” — possibly Addis Ababa, Mr Doria hinted at — to avoid “the risk of Americans, in some way, confiscating the respirators”.
Last month, a delivery of 600 ventilators bought from a Chinese vendor by a consortium of Brazilian states abruptly ended its journey in Miami during a stopover. Maranhão’s Mr Dino claimed the ventilators “did not arrive because of a worldwide confiscation” carried out by the US.
That week Lt Col Jeffrey Bostic, Barbados’s health minister, said in a press conference that an order of 20 ventilators donated by an unnamed philanthropist had been “seized” in the US “because of a decision taken by the government” in Washington. US officials have consistently denied accusations of diverting or seizing medical equipment intended for other countries.