As the coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through Asia, Europe and North America early this year, medical experts warned that it was just a matter of time before other continents, including Africa, would start to report cases. For Tanzania, that day came on Monday 16th March 2020, when the Minister for Health, Ummy Mwalimu, reported the first case of COVID-19 in the country.
That first case, a female, had travelled from Tanzania to Belgium on 3rd March and returned on the 15th March. She took a taxi to Arusha town where she locked herself in a room to self-quarantine but later called government officials who took her for treatment. The minister said the patient was being treated in isolation and was doing fine.
The news quickly spread in the country, and normal life seemed to change overnight. In Dar-es-Salaam and other major cities, people rushed to shops to stock up on food items, drinks and other essentials.
In pharmacies, the depletion of masks and hand sanitizers was drastic. Entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation and in one night these products, which were not popularly known in the country before, hit skyrocket prices. The price of hand sanitizers, for example, rose from US$1 for a 100ml bottle to $7. A box of gloves was going for up to $20 while masks were completely out of stock.
Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa shut down all primary and secondary schools, colleges and other institutions of higher learning for one month to help curb the spread of the deadly virus.
Across the country, meetings and conferences have been cancelled. Almost all public building spaces now have sanitizers and buckets of chlorine-treated water and soap for washing hands.
Citizen journalism has been on the rise in the country, along with rumours and myths about COVID-19. The mainstream media’s consistency in communicating facts, figures and other key messages about the virus has helped people understand the disease better, but more is still required.
Government officials have continued to educate citizens on the virus. The Health ministry has issued a hotline number for people to call in case of symptoms, and President John Magufuli has asked Tanzanians to help stop the disease from spreading.
“All the progress we are making can be brought to a halt by this disease which is killing many people around the world,” said the President.
President Magufuli is also engaging in social distancing. When he recently met with an opposition leader, instead of the normal handshakes and hugs, the two politicians tapped their respective feet to each other, prompting others to follow suit.
To help children to learn from home, the UNIC is also sharing global learning platforms provided by UNESCO.
Economists warn that the social and economic impact of COVID-19 will be huge. Small businesses are starting to feel the heat. For example, Ms. Hassan, a food vendor, fears that the spread of the virus could kill her business.
“This disease is very bad; I am losing my customers very fast. I depend on selling food to pay my rent and feed my family. I don’t know how I will survive if people don’t come to buy because of this coronavirus,” said Ms. Hassan. She is not alone in this predicament. Many other small-scale traders across the continent are facing this uncertainty.
As Tanzanians heed the call to stay home, the more their lives continue to change. What is clear though, is the need for more factual information to curb the fear and panic, and to debunk myths about the virus.