Ethiopia and the United Nations on Tuesday opened a humanitarian transport hub at Addis Ababa airport to move supplies and aid workers across Africa to fight coronavirus.
The arrangement, which relies on cargo services provided by Ethiopian Airlines, could also partially offset heavy losses Africa’s largest carrier is sustaining because of the pandemic.
An initial shipment of 3,000 cubic metres (106,000 cubic feet) of supplies — most of it personal protective equipment for health workers — will be distributed within the next week, said Steven Were Omamo, Ethiopia country director for the World Food Programme (WFP).
“This is a really important platform in the response to COVID-19, because what it does is it allows us to move with speed and efficiency to respond to the needs as they are unfolding,” Omamo said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The Addis gateway is one of eight global humanitarian hubs set up to facilitate movement of aid to fight COVID-19, according to WFP.
In Africa, there are also hubs in Ghana and South Africa.
The continent has so far not been hit by the coronavirus as hard as other regions, but experts worry that weak health systems could quickly become overwhelmed by an influx of cases.
As of Tuesday there were 15,249 COVID-19 cases across the continent resulting in 816 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
African leaders are also worried about the economic toll on the continent.
An African Union study published last week warned that 20 million jobs in the formal and informal sectors were at risk.
The state-run Ethiopian Airlines announced last week that it was already bracing for revenue losses of $550 million (502 million euros) between January and April.
The airline is turning to cargo, maintenance and charter operations to help soften the blow.
Ethiopian Airlines plans to play “a major role” in Africa’s fight against COVID-19, and the humanitarian transportation hub inaugurated Tuesday will be operational at least through the end of May, said Fitsum Abadi, the company’s managing director of cargo and logistics services.
But Fitsum acknowledged that cargo operations would never make up for the loss of most of the airline’s passenger traffic.
“So we are helping the airline to navigate this difficult time — not as healthy as we wanted but in a healthy situation.”