My short 2-week trip to London appears to have been extended indefinitely. The global spread of the pandemic has made all international travel pretty difficult and I’ve reluctantly had to hold back on my return to Tanzania.
“Corona” is a ubiquitous term with which even the most rural Tanzanians are now familiar. People are in fear. And whilst the pandemic was slow to reach Africa, over 40 countries on the continent are now affected. The first case in Tanzania arrived this week and schools, colleges and universities were immediately closed the very next day. But even then, it was too late. As of today, there are 12 cases in Tanzania, and the first in Moshi Town, Kilimanjaro Region, home to Kijana Kwanza.
It was, I guess, inevitable. In the last few days, as the prospect of returning to Tanzania became less certain, I’ve been liaising with staff about how to respond effectively to the emerging crisis. The numbers are, by comparison, still low, but those of us in countries around the world who have seen an exponential rise in confirmed cases in days let alone weeks, know that such complacency has severe consequences.
The world as we know it, has changed. In a matter of weeks, countries are in lockdown, the wondrous freedoms of its peoples, now the very source of our demise. We must isolate, separate and protect ourselves from one another. Meanwhile, the most powerful economies are on the brink of collapse, and both mega-corporates and one-man businesses find themselves in similar circumstances, unsure how they will operate another day. The bigger the enterprise, the greater the fall. Our advanced healthcare systems that were supposed to save us, are now overwhelmed. Governments are scrambling for test kits, protective clothing and ventilators. No doubt they will go to the highest bidder. Everything has changed. But some things will never change.
Yet if this is happening in the West, what will become of Tanzania? The first discernable sign of the crisis came a few weeks ago when the number of tourists arriving in Tanzania quickly started to drop. In a matter of days, staff were being laid off. Moshi Town, which sits at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest summit, is heavily reliant on tourism to survive. Now that there are no tourists, there are no jobs. And unlike their Western counterparts, African governments can’t offer bailouts or subsidise wages. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.
But it isn’t just tourism that has suffered. Almost every sector is suffering and in decline, with costs rising. At Kijana Kwanza, we decided to put off some renovation work, because of a 20% rise in the cost of some materials.
And this was before the news this week that the virus has arrived.
The initial advice around handwashing to stem the spread of the epidemic sounds wonderfully simple, but it’s pretty useless when the cost of soap is beyond your means, or you don’t have running water. Where can you possibly start to protect the people, when even the most precaution is impossible to implement? If the virus takes hold in Tanzania like it has elsewhere, I cannot imagine what kind of a country I will return to in a few months.
At Kijana Kwanza, we are as prepared as we can be. All services for the wider public including our Study Cafe and newly launching IT Suite are now closed to reduce the spread of infection. We have decided to prioritise the welfare of the children who live with us, some of whom have weak immune systems. A strict deep cleaning and disinfectant regime has been instituted, children are not allowed to venture outside the compound without supervision (to make sure they maintain adequate social distancing) and we’ve prepared contingencies for how things would work if there were a sudden outbreak.
Meanwhile, the staff have tried to keep some semblance of normality. Although schools are closed, we now operate classes in-house, so that our children can continue to learn. There are also plenty of games and activities to keep the children busy throughout the day and a good supply of food and medicine on site.
But we are also concerned about our local community. In the next few days we are planning to launch a series of projects to support our community, which will include:
1) A public information campaign in partnership with Moshi Municipality advising local people on how to take precautions and recognise symptoms of the virus (and what to do if it strikes)
2) Distribution of hygiene kits to help with handwashing and basic cleanliness
3) Provision of fortnightly food parcels for households affected economically by the pandemic, such as loss of employment, absence from work during sickness, and if it reaches that point, bereavement
There are no targets for how many people we want to reach, but we are thinking thousands rather than hundreds. Tanzania, and Africa as a continent, does not deserve to be left behind, simply because it cannot buy itself out of crisis. How many people we help, will depend on how many of us get the unfairness and inequalities this virus manifests – in our neighbourhoods, our countries and across the globe. It is always the poor who suffer most.
I’m not sure how long I’ll be stuck in London, but we have a great team in Tanzania doing all the hard work. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, video conferencing and all that techno malarkey, I talk to more Tanzanians than British people everyday. We’re a good team and we’ll keep you updated on what’s happening.