The Bad, the Ugly of Society in Crisis

Several years ago, a friend explained the negative connotation of the word ferenji, a slang term used to refer to white people. I dismissed his sentiment in my mind even as I was trying to listen to his observations.

It seemed such a harmless expression. Children and even adults, all of them barely travelled, are fascinated by a colour of skin and hair that is different from their own. People who use the term ferenjihave no ill will, I reasoned.

When the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic reached Ethiopia, however, it became evident what the term means.Ferenjiis meant to express distinction. In times of crisis, such as the one that society is facing at the moment, this expression becomes weaponised, even if it is typically just a harmless means of referring to white people.

In the few weeks since Ethiopia reported its first confirmed case of the virus, it suddenly became unsafe for foreigners to ride in taxis or to walk the streets. Ferenjiwas replaced with "corona."

Such acts of discrimination are discouraging. Similar acts have also been perpetrated against our precious health professionals. It is saddening to hear that landlords are threatening to kick out doctors and nurses from their rented properties, because they are afraid of contracting the virus from them.

This is not to mention the barrage of misinformation spreading through social media on a daily basis. Words and certain facts are strung together to manifest an alternate reality that is far away from the truth. These evasive tactics have become common practice, and in stressful times we seek out false hope over facts.

Those who spread misinformation make use of anecdotes. They pull people into stories that are sensational and often fail to represent the true picture of the pandemic.

Statistics, which hold the truth if the right questions are applied, cannot stand on their own. They are simply technical facts that lack the human element. Understanding the big picture means deciphering those numbers. And in today’s fight against COVID-19, numbers are by far the most important part of tackling this pandemic.

There is an underlying problem in how our nation is dealing with this crisis. As in our health system, in almost every other sphere, what we have not built up in good times can only come to haunt us in times of bad. We are in this place today, because we did not learn how to work together for a greater good when times were easier.

Infrastructure that would allow electronic payment systems, widespread internet coverage and efficient delivery systems, have been stalled because of bureaucratic red tape and cannot all of a sudden be employed out of the blue.

Fortunately, innovators such as Deliver Addis, Asbeza and Z Mall are now kicking their initiatives into high gear to serve those who are self-isolating. These innovations have existed for years; and while each might have some drawbacks, their presence is contributing positively at a time like this. Yet if we were to ask any of the founders about the number of hurdles they had to jump through to get to this point, we would be left stunned.

We need Ethiopian solutions for our problems. Unfortunately, we have not practised creating our own solutions, and this crisis barely offers a window of opportunity for us to rise to the occasion.

Let us hope that after this pandemic is over, we have taken away the right lessons. A country can only progress when it refuses to leave anyone out of its development. We need to learn to seize the moment instead of building a hallow nation, which is emptying itself in the hope of fitting in with the likes of Dubai. What we need is a nation that can develop its infrastructure rather than erecting high-rise residential buildings only a select few can afford. We have not been building on our values for some time, and it is catching up to us.

Ethiopia cannot afford to fail. No divine intervention will come to save us from what is coming unless we improvise and innovate. The solution lies in each individual, and these unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. We need to show solidarity with one another and work with the government to find ways to combat the devastating effects of the pandemic.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 11,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1041]

Hanna Haile is the founder of Zellan Creative & Cultural Center. She can be reached at (

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