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Coronavirus: Ethiopian Airlines refuses to stop flights to China

“It will not be morally acceptable to stop flying to China today because they have a temporary problem,” Ethiopian Airlines said, adding that it would stand with its “Chinese brothers and sisters”. However, it's rivals RwandAir and Kenya Airways have suspended flights to China.

Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest and most profitable carrier, will continue flying to China despite growing pressure for it to suspend services to the country as the deadly new coronavirus spreads.

Dozens of airlines around the globe have cancelled or reduced their services to cities in the world’s second-largest economy amid fears over the outbreak.

Its East African rivals Kenya Airways and RwandAir have both suspended flights to China until the outbreak is contained.

But Ethiopian Airlines chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam said the carrier would not abandon the routes, which are among its most profitable.

Tewolde told media over the weekend that the airline had been flying to China since 1973 and it would not be ethical to suspend flights to the country.

“It will not be morally acceptable to stop flying to China today because they have a temporary problem,” he said, adding that the airline would stand with its “Chinese brothers and sisters”.

His remarks came days after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta put pressure on the Ethiopian government – which wholly owns Ethiopian Airlines – to halt flights to China, citing the need to curb the spread of the virus into the East African region.

Speaking during a visit to Washington last week, Kenyatta – who is keen to court both China and the US – insisted that Kenya’s decision to suspend flights from Guangzhou to Nairobi was not political.

He said most African countries had weak health systems that would make it harder to handle the outbreak, so preventing its spread – even if through extreme measures such as grounding flights – was the only option.

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“Our worry as a country is not that China cannot manage the disease. Our biggest worry is diseases coming into areas with weaker health systems like ours,” Kenyatta said while addressing members of US think tank the Atlantic Council.

But Ethiopian Airlines said it would continue flying to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hong Kong and was taking measures to protect staff and passengers. Ethiopia receives about 1,500 visitors from mainland China every day.

According to Tewolde, if the airline halted its Chinese services, China and Africa would be completely disconnected.

“No one in Ethiopian Airlines would like to see this,” he said. “We have to take maximum precautions, but stopping flights is not one of them.”

He added: “Even if we stop flying, people will continue to come to Ethiopia through Singapore, Malaysia, Europe. The transmission of the disease will be dangerously hidden … British Airways stopped flying to China for its economic reasons. But Chinese carriers are flying to the UK.”

The airline has bucked a trend that has seen major airlines – from the United States to Europe and Asia – staying away from Chinese airspace as governments around the world move to keep the deadly virus from their borders.

The pneumonia-like illness has so far infected more than 40,000 people and killed more than 1,000 in mainland China since the outbreak began in Wuhan in December, with cases reported in more than 20 other countries worldwide.

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