The Covid-19 pandemic struck Ethiopia at an important juncture in its development and political path. Following impressive progress in poverty reduction and human development in recent decades, driven by a state-led model, it is transitioning towards a more democratic governance structure and a more liberal economic model. This article examines the country’s response to the pandemic, focusing on social protection and health systems. Ethiopia’s experience demonstrates the importance of building shock-responsive systems for social protection, including pre-identification of vulnerable groups and a financing strategy to trigger an immediate response. It also highlights how the health sector capacity can be further strengthened in anticipation of future health emergencies. For example, the government could identify and build the health sector industry capacity before future shocks occur in order to quickly scale up the response. Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on women and girls due to the closure of schools; limited access to gender-based violence and health services; and the economic impact on informal sectors. The article concludes by sharing key lessons for developing countries on how prioritisation of vulnerable groups and ensuring strong political commitment can support a more effective pandemic response.