Agenda | Mar 13,2021
Travelling to the Tigray Regional State feels like flying to an oversees destination — even worse in the sense that fulfilling international Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) mandatory testing requirements before travelling to the region is not required. I was travelling to Tigray in the backdrop of intense controversy with the federal government that had decided to postpone national and regional elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigray regional government remained defiant to the recommendations of the central government and the national electoral management body — the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
The regional government in Tigray requires all travelers to the region to go into mandatory quarantine with the aim of curbing the spread of the virus from other parts of the country. The ease of internal travel in Ethiopia from one regional state to another is invalid in Tigray. Mandatory testing and quarantine are enforced by the Regional State.
Upon arriving at the Alula Aba Nega International Airport, I was given the option to be quarantined at a university campus or pay a hefty fee to self-quarantine at a hotel. The university quarantine experience was not an option for a journalist like me who is traveling to cover elections since the amount of time it takes to get clearance from the overcrowded centre takes 10 days, if you get lucky. I had spoken to others who stayed at the Meqelle University quarantine centre who had confided to me that they survived on peanut butter jelly sandwiches and food delivered in plastic bags.
A 14-day quarantine restriction for travelers to Tigray Regional State came into effect in April 2020. There is also the option of leaving the centres if you test negative after seven days.
Nine days in Quarantine
I landed at Alula Aba Nega International Airport, three weeks prior to the New Year festivities and more than two weeks prior to the regional elections. Long queues awaited me at the Airport. An Ethiopian woman who was returning home from the Middle East confided to me that she had been quarantined in Addis Abeba for seven days at an expensive hotel and said that she tested negative for COVID-19. Upon arrival in Tigray, she was subjected to yet another quarantine order at a university compound or a hotel in the regional capital.
I was advised by a regional health expert to stay at a hotel instead of a temporary quarantine centre at a university since the chances of getting out of quarantine from a hotel are greater. I heeded the advice and booked a hotel that costs twice my daily paycheck.
We were taken to the hotel through a back door. A hotel staff member sprayed disinfectants on the concrete floor and demanded that we cleaned our shoes with it. We were then escorted to our rooms with our masks on.
The following day a man and woman dressed in white gowns and wearing protective masks and gloves arrived to take a sample. The days following my nasal swab would lead to more than a week of waiting to get the results. My news organisation sent me to Tigray to cover the weeks leading up to the elections, observe the mood on the streets, political campaigns and get voter reactions. In reality, I was locked in a tiny hotel room with no one to talk to.
Quarantine a Security Affair
A regional health expert I had called on day three of my quarantine told me that university isolation centres' check-in and transportation is being managed by regional security forces rather than the health bureau.
The process was inefficient, I was told, the testing labs had broken “machines,” and my results would take longer than the original up to 48-hour timeline. My results, I was told, were inconclusive — requiring another wait in limbo that lasted days before a nurse came to take a second sample.
This was a difficult day. I would have to stay at the hotel another day in a space that made me more agitated every passing second. I was itching to get out of the room and send reports to the newsroom back in Addis. It started to feel exhausting and draining.
The same nurse came back a few days later. My agitation with the situation was clear. The doctor working the hospital knew I had been frustrated for some time now and showed sympathy.
We went through the same process; it was not as painful this time. I wondered if I had somehow grown accustomed to it or if it was the agitation about having to stay there for a whole week now that had taken away my attention.
I had to wait for another 24 hours for my results. Nine days after my arrival in Tigray on Tuesday, September 1, 2020, I received a text from the Tigray Bureau of Health. I had tested negative for the virus.
I walked out of the hotel. The feel of chilly Kiremtwinds felt strange for someone who had been stuck in confinement. A minivan with its doors opened pulled to the side of the road playing a popular song by Abrhet Abdu. The song faded, and a man’s voice interrupted the song to say, “Vote for TPLF!"
I walked past the van thinking of how other journalists who may travel to Tigray to cover the elections would be treated and if they had all anticipated the quarantine situation. Would they have access to cover the polls? As the TPLF campaign music faded in the background, I kept walking toward what would be my beat for the weeks to come.
PUBLISHED ON Sep 06,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1062]
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