Covid: the view from Tanzania

In March of 2020, the first case of Covid was detected in Tanzania. The predictions were dire. Melinda Gates said people would be dying in the streets. Lockdown was not considered economically viable but schools closed and large public gatherings were cancelled. Expats evacuated en masse in emergency flights. We who chose to stay braced ourselves.

And then, nothing.

I mean, there were some cases and some deaths but there was no exponential loss of life, even allowing for little testing or poor data collection. The government stopped reporting numbers of cases in May but there have been local ways of keeping tabs on how things are going such as looking for an increase in funeral notices.

Then in June of 20210, Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli declared that Tanzania was Covid free after three days of national prayers against Covid. Schools reopened. Critics scoffed at Magufuli’s religious explanation; now the disaster would strike. And still, nothing, really.

And that’s kind of how it’s been in Tanzania. Cases go up for a bit and then they come down, without lockdowns or other restrictions. I keep hearing that the worst is coming, but for Tanzanians, believing this goes against the evidence of how the virus has played out here. Even with the Delta strain, the ‘wave’ was bigger, but life here is more precarious to start with, and hardship and even death are part of daily life rather than things to be avoided at all costs. And again, the numbers of obituaries we’re seeing seem to have declined on their own.

My family has taken a cautious approach. We isolated from March to July of 2020. When we came out of isolation, much slower than our friends and colleagues, we wore masks even though it was largely perceived to be unnecessary, unchristian and unpatriotic. The difficult thing for us was not so much having to abide by restrictions as not having any guidance at all. When we implemented our own precautions, people would ask, ‘Do you think you’re better than us, wearing your masks? Do you think you know better than our leaders?’ I’ve spent my time in Tanzania trying to get into the headspace of Tanzanians and see things from their perspective and live as they do. Wearing a mask felt like a betrayal of those values. Yet, it was my physical health at stake and I felt compelled by love of others to do what I could to protect them.

It’s not that there are no precautions. The main one people take is handwashing, perhaps because it fits with established cultural practices, so it’s more easily adopted. When you go to church – and churches never stopped meeting, at least not Sunday services – there are handwashing stations outside. Social distancing is not really a thing with all the singing and dancing that goes on in Tanzanian worship, though people do wrist bumps instead of shaking hands. Even for our church, which is full of young, urban professionals, online doesn’t cut it. Our church actually films the services live for YouTube and gives options for how to do your offering remotely, but most people don’t bother. In a communal society, the pull of meeting in person is too strong. And the threat just doesn’t seem that serious. Most people will tell you, ‘Corona is not serious here’ or ‘Covid has gone away’.

The question in Tanzania is: what are you afraid of? People joke, ‘The white people are afraid of Covid and we are afraid of vaccines.”

In March of this year, President Magufuli died suddenly and his Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan succeeded him. She has taken a different approach to President Magufuli, one more in line with the global response to Covid, even wearing a mask herself, which makes it easier for us to do so. Data release remains patchy but she’s been a great advocate for vaccines and signed Tanzania up to the WHO’s COVAX program. That’s how my husband and I got vaccinated in August of this year, through vaccines donated from wealthy countries to poor. Yet, vaccine hesitancy in Tanzania is extremely high, with less than 3 per cent of people vaccinated. People wonder about the speed with which the vaccine was developed or they read misinformation about how it will affect their fertility. When I provide facts about these things to reassure them, they say if they were in the West where the quality of the vaccine was assured, they would probably take it, but how do they know that what they are getting is the same as what is given in Western countries? This suspicion may be motivated by the global history of medical testing on black bodies, but I think it’s more likely informed by experiences of well-meaning aid donors giving poor-fitting solutions in Africa, and seeing cast-offs from the West turning up in African markets.

The question in Tanzania is: what are you afraid of? People joke, ‘The white people are afraid of Covid and we are afraid of vaccines.” President Samia has implored churches to join in the efforts to urge people to be vaccinated. But it’s complicated. After all, President Magufuli went to church without a mask, declaring that the blood of Jesus protected him from Covid and he was beloved and known as a man of great faith. Our denomination here issued a statement to all members saying that people must not be criticised whichever path they take; this may seem a more tepid response than urging people to be vaccinated, but it’s a pretty strong statement in Tanzania because it’s only those who do get vaccinated who face criticism. Most people keep it a secret if they do: there are no ‘Vaxxed!’ social media filters here. In among all this, a friend who chose to take the vaccine did so saying that even if it is dangerous to him, he trusts that Jesus’ power will still protect him.

Other parts of the world have been much harder hit than Tanzania. It’s still largely a mystery why, except for the grace of God, Tanzania has not gone where it was predicted. When Tanzanians talk about God’s protection over Tanzania, I ask if that means God has not protected other countries but they refuse to say. ‘We want to give thanks,’ they say, ‘not try and explain everything.’