Every week my Kiswahili teacher asks me what I’ve been doing, and each time my answer comes with what’s become a useful phrase: I stayed at home, kwa sababu ya corona. I didn’t go to the office, kwa sababu ya corona. We can’t go to restaurants now, kwa sababu ya corona. My new phrase explains a lot: because of the coronavirus.
His reaction is always similar: a look of surprise and a shake of the head, as he concludes: Maisha ni magumu Uingereza: life is difficult in England. In Tanzania, my teacher says, people aren’t wearing masks and they aren’t avoiding crowds. Life is as normal because there is no corona in the country.
He smiles as he says this – as he often does, for he comes across as warm and big-hearted, even on a tiny screen from a continent away – so that at first I don’t know if he really means it, or if he knows it’s absurd, or if he’s just keeping things simple so that my rusty language skills can keep up.
It turns out Tanzania does not have Covid – at least, not officially. The country stopped reporting cases on 29 April, having counted 509 infections by then; in June, President Magufuli declared the pandemic in Tanzania over, thanks to citizens “praying and fasting”.
Media restrictions now prevent reporters from covering the virus without approval of the authorities. Ahead of the general election in October, Human Rights Watch reported that several outlets had been fined or suspended for covering politically sensitive topics, including the coronavirus: one online TV station was banned for 11 months for sharing a Covid-19 health alert. The Ministry of Health told The East African newspaper in December that it had no plans to import any vaccines (but that it is researching and testing local herbal remedies).
The Tanzanian president isn’t the only one denying the severity of the virus: as early as April 2020 the leaders of Brazil, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Nicaragua earned the amusing (a little too fun, perhaps?) label of the “ostrich alliance” for their head-in-the-sand approach.
But Tanzania’s situation is especially disconcerting to me because I lived there for a while, when it was considered the “darling” of Western aid donors – largely peaceful, stable and democratic. Then came the election of Magufuli in 2015, raising high hopes – with his anti-corruption and efficiency drive prompting humorous admiration in the social media meme, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo – but soon turning sour.
In the current “data darkness” or “data lockdown”, it’s still unclear if Tanzania has actually got off lightly for some reason, or if things are or could get much more serious. The plea articulated by activist Mwanahamisi Singano in an open letter to the president – “Tell us the truth, even if it’s bitter to swallow” – is seemingly being ignored.
So, for now, my weekly conversation class sticks with what we know. In England, in any case, life is difficult.