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Ignorance Isn't Bliss

February 22 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune'sDeputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling. )

Two years ago, Simegnew Bekele, chief engineer and lead project manager of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), was found dead in his car at Mesqel Square. It was a sad occasion, and a great loss to a country starved of skilled personnel to drive development.

There was not much mourning before his death was politicised and many of those that claimed to be shocked and dismayed quickly launched into what has become a beloved national pastime - fabricating conspiracy theories. This continued well after investigators ruled his death a suicide. Social media commentators analysed and re-analysed the circumstances of his death as if they were professional detectives with years of experience.

Nowadays, we find these people branding themselves experts on the water politics of the Nile with technical mastery of the operation and filling of the GERD. They do not say why a superpower of the United States’ stature would suddenly take an interest in a project that should not concern any other than the Nile riparian countries nor what the long term consequences for Ethiopia could be in refusing to sign any agreements.

Yet, they claim that nothing stands between Ethiopia and the operation of the dam other than an administration willing to shortchange an entire country for generations to come. They do not even try to reasonably explain in what way it would be politically expedient for the current administration to make an agreement that negatively impacts Ethiopia.

Recently, these same social media commentators could be found opinionating on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). They were once detectives, then hydropower and geopolitical experts and now they behave like public health professionals.

They are convinced that an epidemic here is only a matter of time given that Ethiopian Airlines continues to make flights to China. Never mind that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute do not believe that it is prudent to institute sweeping travel restrictions.

Never mind also that the risk of catching any serious viral infections on planes is low given that the air in aeroplanes is purified using surgical-grade filters, according to David Powell, medical advisor at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who spoke with CNBC, an American broadcaster.

In none of these cases, however, does it mean that there is no cause for concern. It does not mean that the public and the media should swallow everything that the government or international institutions shove down their throats.

Take the concern over the coronavirus, for instance. There are enough reports to indicate that airport temperature checks, though able to slow the spread of the virus, would be unable to stop it. Instead, an information card given to passengers that flew in from China, which explains that they must check their temperature and alert the local authorities in case of symptoms such as difficulty breathing, have been much more effective in countries such as the Unites States.

But these are all points those that argue with confidence that an epidemic is due any day do not bring up. They come from a place of panic, anger or political outrage. The people who say these things do not provide sophisticated arguments or do enough research about what they say.

Unfortunately, they are experts in one thing. They can appeal to our prejudices in ways we rarely notice. Before we know it, we usually find ourselves singing to their tune, making their arguments and spreading panic and conspiracy theories to everyone else.

It should not be that hard to do a little research now and then, especially when it comes to issues that are more complicated than they sound. There are experts, people with years of experience, we can and should turn to for explanations. It is only when we are informed of the context and understand the subtleties that we should pass judgment on what Ethiopia should or should not agree to regarding the GERD or whether Ethiopian Airlines should suspend flights to China.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 22,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1034]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune'sDeputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

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