The East African government of Tanzania closes all schools and institutions of higher learning. Unnecessary gatherings are out. It pleads with the people to adhere to guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) issued after declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic translating into the COVID-19 disease.
A countrywide campaign for washing hands, using sanitizers, wearing face masks and hand gloves is mounted. This is part of Tanzania’s contribution from East Africa to the world war on COVID-19. The Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) issues guidelines for worshippers in the context of activity-crammed Holy Week towards Easter Festival around the corner.
As I was about to file in this article, a similar guideline reached my home desk from the Moshi-based Northern Diocese of Evangelical and Lutheran Church Tanzania (ELCT), signed by Bishop, Dr Fredrick O. Shoo.
In terms of numbers and, therefore, effectiveness, these steps constitute a big positive impact on reducing people’s movement. At the level of my seven-member extended family alone, this immediately put three off the road. In real terms, this left only me, who has to hit the streets of Dar es Salaam. The other two are 86-year-old great grandma and my wife, doubling as house-keeper and essentially home based. But today, Sunday 5th April, all of us are at home. And this is how it evolved. I have not made it to our house’s doorsteps.
Besides what I said earlier, Health Minister Ummy Mwalimu later made an announcement that touched my inquisitive mind in a way. She put the COVID-19 tally in Tanzania at 19 registered positive cases. I imagined: “What a tally coincidence that could easily have also escaped the ‘precise’ US-based John Hopkins University experts!”
Her next brief reveals the first COVID-19 death. The story changes from the possibility to real reality. Life no longer feels the same. With City transport buses commuting on level seat, now streets show signs of ‘drought’. All along, my response has been to come earlier and leave later than others to avoid congestion. Now I feel more reluctant to come to town. My feet and soul grow heavy.
Before five o’clock in the morning, I have to go through the hand-wash exercise at the ferry terminal– any measures taken at home notwithstanding. I walk to office. I have to go through the second hand wash at the office building entrance. The main door is automatic. At the main reception I have to go through a Coronavirus-related temperature check.
“That’s very good mzee (old man),” a security guard tells me. Together with him we read it. It’s 29.4. It’s the second time I am undergoing it. A day earlier it was 29.5. I take the lift specified for residents.
Up in the office, the air is heavy. I opt to do the cleaning. The newspaperman does not turn up. I have to read papers online. I get a WhatsApp notification. It’s from our CEO. “Good morning sir!” I am struck by the use of the exclamation mark. Don’t get surprised if it escaped you as well. Professions matter. We read words by their characters. Not the way they look like. We were taught: “A coma killed a man.”
The body text reads: “We would like to close the office for some time for protection. We will send dada (our office manageress) home.” This pleases my mind. In her condition – advanced pregnancy – it is not to good taste to continue exposing her to the SARS-Cov-2 infection risk. Then the crux of the message: “During this time if you use your home for your works, what do you think?”
Immediately I concur with him. In my mother tongue we say: “Wasindika atandamire” — meaning “you are pushing a squatting person.” Or “Watemela mbali gwinamiile” – you are cutting a tree in the direction of its inclination.” It’s easy work.
I clear the washroom dustbin. I switch off respective electricity points. With his permission, I take a packet of sugar and a coffee tin for my working from home sessions. This has its own meaning. I have to use more electricity. This is not a big challenge. I will no longer need transport to town. This is enough for beefing up the kitchen and providing buffer for power purchases.
On average, our extended family is a bit luckier for social distancing. We have a modest house on a 15m x 38m fenced plot; running water, humble function rooms, and a cesspit to soak away waste disposal system.
We grow most of our vegetables and keep our own poultry for eggs and meat. For other home supplies we go to the market every Thursday. We have a person, who normally supplies us with fresh fish from the ferry market.
It’s not until you come face to face with the real situation on the ground that you realize the uphill task of the fight against the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 and the resulting COVID-19 disease. Generally there is an across-the-board ignorance about the properties of the problem made worse by the laissez-faire public attitude.
At the family level school children on forced leave have to be ordered to stay indoors. Otherwise, to them this is the time to roam streets, visiting neighbour homes even to which they have never been before. This defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. Thursday is our market day. To tell members of the family that only one person should go there translates into some level of cruelty. The same applies to asking the children to keep distance. They were used to home-work given at school. Now they are given school work at home. What is all this about?
At home we have one notorious finger ‘feeding’ grandchild. To drive home dangers in suckling fingers we have had to buy him disposable medical examination gloves. I don’t know if the decision was even right. Indeed every cloud has a silver lining. His inclination towards suckling his left hand index finger has gone down (thanks to COVID-19? No!).
As soon as the government made it mandatory for people to use soap and water or sanitizers at transport terminals and every office or shop entrance, we took heed. We placed a 20-litre plastic bucket fitted with a screw tap for visitors and any family member coming back home. We provided the soap and sanitizer. No towels.
The first resistance was from our fish supplier. He cracked a joke: “When are you opening a Mosque here?” I replied: “When the water runs dry?” We laughed it off. He did not like it at first. Now he is doing it. I hope it is not only for money but his and our health as well.
For the people at home, we discouraged handshakes, which are normally between adults. It is not normal for children to shake hands with an adult. The Kiswahili “Shikamoo” is not accompanied by a hand shake. We went in for a “Tumsifu Yesu Kristo” –praise be to Jesus Christ or “Bwana Asifiwe”—praise be to the Lord” greeting modules.
Because children have domestic cores revolving on feeding chicken, watering vegetables, banana plant stumps and lemongrass bushes, they are sensitized to wash their hands every time they end these tasks, which are performed several times during the day on rotation. Every family member has a toothpaste tube and a brush kept in a personal container. The soap is common.
The coronavirus is real. But the society is yet to come to grips with its ramifications. There is need to mount national sensitization campaigns. As I was writing this article, my wife told me the grandchildren had an Easter Monday invitation from their aunt. She said she had given them extra work on our plot to work for their fare.
We had a big debate. I told her we have a national problem that has led to the closure of schools. The point at issue is the COVID-19 disease caused by the Coronavirus, which is spread through contact. How can we let the children make an unnecessary trip involving three bus transfers, one way? We agreed the invitation is not accepted.
Rumors abound. Some people believe the virus strain in question is selective. Some believe it is color sensitive when it has got nothing to do with pigment. There are those who believe it is a temperate climate problem when it is already wreaking havoc in the tropics and even at the Equator as well.
An answer to this could be for Tanzania and other member countries of the East African Community (EAC) and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to include this and other infectious diseases in their national curriculum development programs. In all these countries poverty, ignorance and disease constitute the three major national development enemies. With a small margin of error, I dare call ignorance their common factor. What is your take on that?