DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA - Today I decided to do my own coronavirus survey, here in Dar es Salaam. Tanzania. The reason is that I am trying to deal with my confusion.
Two countries in the world don’t report cases of COVID-19 because, officially, it is not there. These are North Korea and… Tanzania. And yes, I happen to be locked down in Dar es Salaam, the main city of… Tanzania.
The number of countries that have reported cases of COVID-19 now stands at 188. I don’t know how I managed to end up in a country that claims not to have the coronavirus, but I did. My arrival in Tanzania was on March 16 and I have been here ever since, safely staying at the Mikadi Beach Camp.
The country stopped reporting cases of COVID-19 on April 29 with 509 infections at the time. But a few weeks ago, President Magufuli declared the pandemic in Tanzania officially over and said people should resume normal lives without even having to wear facemasks.
He said God had solved the issue with a divine intervention after national prayers. "Corona cannot survive in the body of Christ; it will burn,” the president had said.
However, in countries surrounding Tanzania, the number of COVID-19 cases has been rising. South Africa is recording 12,000 news cases per day on average, and in countries like Rwanda and Uganda, the virus is slowly spreading. Kenya has 500 new cases per day on average.
Furthermore Kenya and South Africa are reporting a shortage of hospital beds to take care of people who develop life-threatening symptoms.
So this morning I decided to leave our beach sanctuary, which has kept us safe for more than three months, and go for a survey in town.
The first leap of faith was taking the ferry from the southern part of the city to the central business district. As expected, the ferry was packed with people and cars, there were hardly any facemasks and no physical distancing whatsoever. Amazing, but not strange in a country that has been declared to be coronavirus-free.
I took some comfort from the fact I was wearing a fresh three-ply surgical facemask, but my best efforts to keep some kind of distance from others was in vain.
“There is no Corona in Tanzania,” said the motorbike driver who took me from the ferry into the central business district. And indeed, everywhere I looked there was the normal buzz of Dar es Salaam as I knew it from previous trips.
The shops are open, there are street markets and there are men seated on the street having their conversations. There are the people with sewing machines, the street food kiosks, all connected by the hooting of passing cars and tuk-tuks.
There were hardly any facemasks, and at times it felt like people were looking at me as an alien from outer space with my beautiful mask.
‘There is Corona in Italy, not in Tanzania,’ said the lady at the coffee shop where I was accustomed to having a double espresso. At that moment it occurred to me that for strict Muslim women, it’s easy to comply with face covering since they were already doing that.
If there were a health crisis caused by the coronavirus, a number of vulnerable people would unfortunately die from it. So I decided to visit graveyards. This wouldn’t enable me to do a statistically reliable survey, but there should be signs of an increased death rate in the form of new graves, or a cluster of recent death dates, or signs that the graveyards are filling up.
I had seen similar signs of tragedy in Zambia during the HIV epidemic, and in Angola during the Marburg virus epidemic.
Here in Dar es Salaam, I visited three graveyards in the center of the city. To my astonishment I found one or two new graves per graveyard, with the newest one dated in June. The median age in Tanzania is low, so I would expect a lower mortality rate, but if the country was suffering a major epidemic like in the United States, Brazil or Russia, there should have been more.
Then I passed by a hospital. Entering proved difficult because of tight security. But the entrance of the main hospital in Dar es Salaam showed no signs of panic. There were no ambulances rushing in and out, no beds outside on the compound marking a crisis.
The situation looked normal except that the hospital staff were wearing facemasks, even the guards. So that was the first sign that there could be something going on, but it’s hard to draw conclusions based on only that.
It’s the same with civil servants in Tanzania; they are all wearing facemasks and gloves. Is there something we don’t know? Another sign was that the hotel where I stayed last year was closed, but that could be because of a lack of tourists. Staying in Tanzania for months, we didn’t hear about any of the lodge staff having lost relatives or friends. So is there really no coronavirus in Tanzania?
Getting weary of being locked down, last week we decided to go to a club since they are open in Tanzania. Health specialists say this poses the greatest risk of contracting the coronavirus.
We danced, we drank, we were holding each other and we laughed. It is now weeks later and none of us has developed symptoms. This can be luck, or we became asymptomatic, who knows, but still …
Maybe Tanzania just did it by closing the borders quickly and the virus never spread. Maybe the Tanzanian Covidol potion inspired on a Madagascar recipe really worked. We at least took several shots of it and we didn’t get sick.
But a few days later I spoke with a colleague working for an international organization. He warned me that the coronavirus is still around in Tanzania and should be taken seriously. He told me he and his colleagues were working from home and advised me to remain careful.
Also, there have been numerous news reports of truck drivers in Tanzania testing positive at the border with Kenya. No more going to the disco then.
It all leads to confusion in the head.
On the way back to the lodge I decided to have a Tanzanian rice pilau dish in a street restaurant, all of which are also open. This is what I used to do during normal days, and having an indigenous Tanzanian pilau again was great.
While enjoying the pilau among Tanzanians with no facemasks, I listened to a public address by President Kenyatta of Kenya, my home. He ended the lockdown of the capital Nairobi and the second city Mombasa, but maintained a curfew to control the spread of the virus. The country is recording a surge in the number of new infections, but he also has to revive the economy.
Meanwhile here in Tanzania we just don’t know what is happening. There might be an invisible danger roaming through the lively streets, or not.
Kenyatta also announced that international flights to Kenya would resume from August 1. At least from then I’ll be free to travel home from supposedly infection-free Tanzania to infected Kenya.
I’m not sure what’s wisdom because maybe there is no coronavirus in Tanzania, but I will take the risk. The coronavirus is not going to defeat me. I will go back home to my girlfriend.