Dar es Salaam
The World Health Organization has drawn up a shortlist of countries it’s most concerned about during the pandemic. Tanzania is at the top. The government’s lack of transparency during the crisis is a big part of the problem. In recent years the country has imposed increasingly repressive laws to muffle the media — newspapers fined and journalists arrested. Or worse. For the purposes of this piece I am ‘Tom James’; I’m either more circumspect or less courageous than my fellow journos here. When the international media — fed by stringers whose identities are disguised — try to report on the pandemic, they are accused of scaremongering, their attempts described by the government as a ‘form of warfare’. Brave journalists keep popping their heads above parapets to tell the world what’s really happening. Amnesty International recently stated the obvious: nailing journalists who criticise their governments’ approach to COVID-19 is hampering efforts to tackle it. Stories leak anyway when there’s a gagged press, but they bleed out via all kinds of media and mutate on the way. Are people dropping dead on the streets? Are the numbers of infected being misrepresented? Are there secret midnight burials of COVID-19 casualties? Who knows.
But why is the WHO so concerned about Tanzania? Well, for a start there is inadequate testing and almost no sharing of data. The Africa CDC reported that as of May 15 Tanzania has conducted just 652 tests and, unlike almost every other country, is not submitting regular updates. Next door in Kenya, they’ve performed more than 50 times as many tests: 36,918. Tanzania’s President, John Pombe Magufuli, is in hiding at home in the west of the country. He took his private jet there weeks ago to hunker down, but not before urging his citizens to gather in church to pray this thing away. ‘These holy places are where God is,’ he said. ‘My fellow people, let us not be afraid of going to praise Him. Coronavirus cannot survive in the body of Christ, it will burn.’ But, perhaps to reassure the doubters, he’s adopting additional measures. He is going to send another plane to Madagascar to import a herbal tonic touted as a cure. It comes from artemisia, an ingredient used in a malaria treatment. Which makes me think of hydroxychloroquine and the fact that there is none on the shelves here, where we actually need the stuff. I can’t help wondering what it is with unhinged world leaders (ours, incredibly, has a chemistry degree) and malaria cures?
Failure to contain the virus has inevitably led to a rise in cases: Tanzania is suspected of having the highest in the region despite those staggeringly low testing rates. Many who are ill, according to doctors (who, like those stringers, often speak to the international press under pseudonyms), avoid seeking medical help for fear of stigma or intimidation. Last week, the US embassy advised Americans living in Tanzania to stay at home because, it said, hospitals risked being overwhelmed. Magufuli has an explanation for that too: sabotage by imperialist foreign powers and faulty test kits and procedures. The problem is, if Tanzania fails to meet global standards in at least trying to contain this contagion, we’ll end up as a Petri dish and a pariah. Our precious tourism (which earned us almost $3 billion in 2018) will never come back. Africa has always struggled with diseases — malaria, Aids, cholera — but COVID-19 is one the West gets, literally and metaphorically. Tourists won’t dismiss it as the small-print warning on a travel leaflet.
The British government’s flights home were not meant for the likes of me — expatriates. They were for traveling Brits caught abroad. There was something reassuring in that — in not being told to go ‘home’ when I had a home here. But I felt a creeping unease when the Europeans, the Americans and the South Africans began to haul their nationals ‘home’, that is to say, to the country on their passports. I wondered if I’d been reckless, especially when I saw a tweet from the Australians, the gist of which was: ‘If you are an Australian and in Africa, get out now. We cannot vouch for your safety.’ I asked my wife if she thought we should leave. ‘What about the dogs?’ she wailed. Indeed. There are the dogs. There is also a home, jobs, responsibilities. A life. What if, I worry, we can’t get back here — home?
Mulling this over, I drove to the supermarket to stock up. This was weeks ago, when the pandemic was still a distant irritation, not a full-blown, fatal, economy-ravaging reality. I was stopped en route by cops (our roads bristle with speed checks). I refused to be pressed for a fine for a speed I wasn’t doing and tried to divert the attention of the two cops. ‘Instead of harassing motorists like me, why don’t you do something about corona?’ ‘We are,’ they replied; ‘we are praying.’ As they said that, a boda boda, a motorbike taxi, roared by. The driver was wearing a mask, but no crash helmet. His three passengers, skewered tightly behind him (the locals call this configuration a kebab), were naked of both. God help us, I thought.