ZIWAY, ETHIOPIA - Ethiopia arrested thousands of protesters, opposition members and journalists during July's sectarian unrest. Health workers and local officials say some of those detained have contracted COVID-19 and are concerned the virus is spreading in overcrowded prisons and makeshift detention centers.

In the four months since Ethiopia recorded its first case of COVID-19, Dambal Kassim, the head nurse at a coronavirus treatment center in the Ethiopian town of Ziway, had very little to do. But in the aftermath of widespread unrest following the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer who fought for Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group, things have become much busier. The unrest resulted in thousands of incarcerations and at least 178 deaths.

Dambal, other health workers in the region and local officials say some detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus. Authorities are now testing inmates amid concerns the virus is spreading fast.

"In the three months since COVID-19 began, we only had two cases of coronavirus,” Dambal said. “But in the last two weeks, we’ve recorded 23 cases. … In prisons, there are sometimes 150 people in one room following the unrest that resulted in many arrests. That is why people are being infected in jail.”

Rights workers say Ethiopian authorities have detained scores of opposition members and journalists for prolonged periods without charges since Hachalu’s death on June 28. The result is overcrowded jails and makeshift detention centers located inside schools and warehouses.

While the government has blamed the opposition Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Party for coordinating the killing and the violence that followed Hachalu’s death, anti-government activists and Oromo opposition members believe the violence was planned to create the conditions necessary to clamp down on dissent.

Jibril Sharbi, the CEO of the general hospital in Ziway, spoke with VOA about the risk of COVID-19 spreading among detainees.

“Following the arrests after Hachalu was killed, we’re recording more cases,’ Sharbi said. “We have three female prisoners infected and sent to a nearby town. We suspect there are more, and we are conducting more tests.”

Among those detained who have contracted COVID-19 is Kenyan journalist Yassin Juma. The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa has complained that he was held, despite the court granting him bail, and have appealed for his immediate release.

On Thursday, he was sent to a government-run isolation center.

The Ethiopian Health Ministry did not respond to questions asking how many detainees had contracted the coronavirus.  

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