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Dependence in the age of coronavirus: how a global pandemic is unsettling African buildings

In February 2020, I was conducting research in Ethiopia for the African State Architecture (ASA) project. My area of focus was the country’s Bole International Airport. In many respects this was a normal fieldwork trip, encompassing a mix of focus group discussions, elite interviews and archival work focused on the past and present significance of the country’s rapidly expanding international airport to different kinds of actors.

And whilst conducting research on buildings in general, and airports specifically, might not seem a fruitful vantage point from which to understand an emerging global health emergency, in retrospect there appear to be several ways that the global coronavirus pandemic was already making itself known through African buildings back in February.

The first sign was brought to my attention by ASA colleague, Daniel Mulugeta. He pointed out in early February that the crisis in China, where the first coronavirus cases originated, had already started impacting the reputation of the country’s national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. Social media was by then awash with calls, even by some African leaders, for the airline to suspend its flights to China to prevent transmission of the virus to Africa

But with the airline forging its business model around becoming a major global player connecting China and Africa, such moves were strongly resisted. Indeed, until very recently the airline was being called the ‘the last major international carrier to touch down on Chinese soil’.

Tellingly, this made Bole International one of the last pieces of functioning airport infrastructure to connect China and Africa, making it a particularly noteworthy signal of the strength of Ethiopia’s commitment to being at the vanguard of deepened integration between the two regions. Such operations have also allowed the airline to distribute medical aid such as masks and testing kits from China using its route network, as well as other kinds of cargo.

However, these continued operations have not served to insulate the airline or indeed the airport from the economic problems that have been affecting the global aviation industry.

Due to the recent shock, some airports globally are temporarily closing down. This means that whilst the buildings themselves are likely to withstand the crisis largely intact (even if many of the airlines that serve them do not), when the pandemic is over their fortunes, and governance and ownership structures may have changed dramatically.

In Ethiopia, in a somewhat unusual arrangement, Bole International Airport is now owned and operated by state-owned Ethiopian Airlines. This means at a time of global crisis in the sector, the airport’s fortunes are even more closely tied to those of the airline than if it were only the airport’s main customer.

This poses distinctive challenges, since just last week, the airline reported that it had lost over US$ 190 million since the coronavirus crisis took hold, meaning the airline has already started to furlough thousands of staff.

For an airport which has been recently given a highly modern and sizeable new extension – as yet, not fully in use (see below) – Bole International’s future as Africa’s burgeoning aviation super-hub (and rival to Dubai) now seems much shakier than could possibly have been imagined back in February.

Indeed, the airport’s rapid expansion had, prior to the coronavirus crisis, become a highly significant symbol of Ethiopia’s long-standing aviation success, infrastructural development and the architectural epitome of the country’s modernisation.

But with no airline globally now sure it will be able to weather the crisis intact, and the airport’s future growth tied so closely with that of the national flag carrier, the ambitious expansion and growth projections underlying it look to suddenly to have a rather uncertain future.

Beyond the airport itself, the second warning sign of some of the likely impacts of the crisis on the built environment in Africa occurred during a visit to a half-completed building in Addis city centre. Like many structures in the capital, this one was a multi-storey concrete shell structure.

Buildings such as those pictured above can seem stuck in this state of suspended animation for prolonged periods of time. Whilst the initial construction stages can be completed with locally-sourced materials such as cement, the finishing materials for such highly modern high-rise structures are often sourced from overseas, particularly China.

In a country with a serious shortage of foreign currency, the city skyline therefore can seem dominated by series of eerie skeletons monuments to the rapidly expanding economy’s challenges in generating sufficient export earnings to cover an import-intensive development model.

However, in February, it was clear that a new – global – challenge was emerging to the completion of such buildings. The particular building we visited had no problem accessing foreign currency – but construction had largely ground to a halt anyway as the contractor was unable to import the required finishing materials because the factories in China producing the materials were closed due to the coronavirus crisis.

In addition, many Chinese construction workers who had been working on the project had been unable to return to Ethiopia after returning home to celebrate the Chinese new year, further throwing the construction timetable off-course.

This visit therefore revealed a new problem likely to pose challenges across a continent in which Chinese construction firms – with very well developed Chinese supply chains and often very reliant on large numbers of Chinese workers – have come to play an increasingly significant role in major building projects, such as the parliament buildings studied by my colleague Ib Ncube.

This represents a new version of the old story of Africa’s vulnerability to import dependence, refreshed in light of this global pandemic. And with China recently experiencing a deep domestic contraction thanks to the coronavirus crisis, the recent reliance of African leaders on Chinese loans, aid, investment and other forms of economic cooperation may well be about to undergo profound transformations.

Overall, therefore, the coronavirus crisis seems to showcase the profound interconnectedness of seemingly stable structures such as buildings with highly unstable global social and economic forces. It also acts as a striking reminder of the contingency, flux and uncertainty inherent in any social science research (despite the clear temptation to rush to secure-feeling judgements).

And finally, the crisis has also been a particularly salutary reminder of the specific fragility of African nations within a highly unequal global political economy, with even continental success stories such as Ethiopian Airlines and Bole International Airport finding their future in doubt due forces far beyond the country’s borders.


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