Covid-free Tanzania? My Four Month Experience

Hey, y’all! I have been gone for a minute, I know. Time really flies. I had quite the experience in Tanzania. I left this past Friday. It was especially interesting to experience it for the first time during a pandemic. The Tanzanian government proclaimed the country to be Covid-free a while back. But is it really?

Covid-free Speech

The subject of the coronavirus, there, was a taboo. The locals were nervous to talk about it. Most people I met pretended it doesn’t exist. Any time I tried to discuss it, the person I was talking to would dismiss it if he/she thought it was fake, or whisper his/her opinions if he/she thought it was real. There seemed to be a fear of someone overhearing and turning them in. I heard of people being arrested for statements posted on social media or making reports about the country’s situation, so I decided I’d wait until I was out of the country before posting anything. News of Coronavirus didn’t seem to spread quickly there, but other news did. I didn’t feel like being new news and featured on an episode of ‘Locked Up Abroad’.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Being in an environment that looked and operated as normal was comforting, but as we all know, looks can be deceiving. I personally hadn’t seen any locals coughing, sneezing, or anything that would suggest the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean much. I stayed to myself most of the time, so of course, I wasn’t going to observe much anyway. While out searching for a certain Airbnb, I did come across a hospital that made me a bit suspicious. People were all outside with masks and no one was allowed in without a mask. I thought that was weird since there was “no Corona in Tanzania”. I didn’t see anyone wearing masks at any of the hospitals near where I was staying. With the high numbers of tourists flowing in with no restrictions, even if the country were Covid-free, there’s no possible way it could have stayed that way.

In the entire time I spent in Dar es Salaam, I hadn’t seen so many people wearing masks as I did in my last couple of weeks there. Ambulance sirens were blaring more often, too. Though I personally had no first-hand knowledge of the Coronavirus status of the country, I knew someone that had first-hand knowledge, and what she said was pretty concerning.

In Retrospect

When I arrived at Julius Nyerere International Airport, back in November, there was no testing requirement for visitors from the US. I got tested anyway and had my results on hand. No one requested to see my test results. No one on my flight was asked for results. There was only a temperature scan of our foreheads and a drop of sanitizer to the hand. That’s it. All free to continue to immigration and from there, to explore Tanzania. I’m pretty sure not much had changed since my arrival because people were flocking in by the droves. A month later, someone in one of my WhatsApp groups had sent a photo taken inside the airport. It showed a packed crowd of people, many without masks, standing almost shoulder to shoulder waiting to get through immigration.

Staying Informed

Every 2-3 days, I searched the internet for Coronavirus updates for Tanzania. The media wasn’t allowed to report on it and health workers couldn’t even mention it. However, things had obviously gotten so out of hand during my last few weeks there, that priests and activists were breaking the rules and lifting their voices. In February, I rode with a taxi driver who was oblivious to the then-recent news of fresh COVID cases in Arusha. He was laughing and commenting about my getting into his car wearing a mask. “There’s no COVID in Tanzania,” he remarked. I replied, “Have you been keeping up with the news? The Archbishop in Arusha said there are new cases.” The driver’s smiling face turned to one of thoughtfulness. “Oh, no. I didn’t know it,” he said. “I should check more about these things. We are not allowed to talk about this thing.”

Another local friend said he personally knew of no one who had died of Covid-19. That makes sense. If no one is allowed to speak about the virus or say its name, and it’s referred to by anything but Covid, then no, you wouldn’t know anyone who died of Covid-19.

Straight From The Nurse’s Mouth

A few days before I was scheduled to fly out of Tanzania, I was speaking with one of the hostel guests who is a nurse. We were discussing mask-wearing and some people’s reactions to those who were wearing them. She laughed and said it’s because they think it’s not normal and there’s no virus here. Then, she quickly changed her tone and whispered, “In the hospital, people are dying like flies. It’s very bad. You have to be careful for your own safety. It’s up to you.” Then, she went back to speaking in an upbeat way and chuckling about mask wearers– obviously playing it off so she wouldn’t get turned in or whatever if anyone had heard us talking about the virus.

Sad News

This morning, around midnight CST, I received a text from one of my friends in Tanzania. I had just woken up, my body still on East Africa Time. The message read: “Habari za Mexico? Our president is dead.” That got me fully awakened. I asked what happened and he responded, “CORONA, sister. Tanzania is increased.” That’s the first time I’ve heard any local, outside of my nurse friend, acknowledge that the virus is active in Tanzania. He told me to be careful. I told him to do the same. President Magufuli’s cause of death is said to be a heart condition, but some say differently. In any case, it’s sad and unfortunate that he has passed.

A Covid-free Future

Now, I’m wondering what the people of Tanzania will do to combat the further spread of the virus. Testing is available but, as far as I know, it’s not yet on a wide-spread, national level. I sincerely hope Tanzania’s new and first female president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, will work to stop the spread of the virus before it gets out of hand and more lives are lost. Maybe some day, hopefully soon, Tanzania will be undoubtedly covid-free.

I wish the best for the folks of Tanzania.

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