When COVID-19 hit Zanzibar.
Zanzibar, I thought, might be good. White sand beaches, piña coladas. A tourist bubble, maybe, but comfortable. Just a few days, until I figure out what to do.
It was February 2020. My visa had run out and I had to leave Cape Town, where I’d been living. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had just began its global travels. The South African borders were closing, and flying to Europe had become extremely pricy. Without a home or place to stay there, I thought, why not just go somewhere else until this thing blows over? The flight through Addis Ababa was all but empty. At the Tanzanian border, no usual checks for yellow fever — only a temperature test, and enforced hand sanitizing.Two days later I was having my drink on the beach with a typical motley crew of backpackers: an Italian, a Norwegian, an American, and a Russian.
We try to relax and engage in the kind of playful comparative discourse expected of us in these settings. What other beach does this one remind me of? How cheap is Zanzibar compared to Diani, or Phuket? But the injunction to chill didn’t gel well with the tensions that a global pandemic produces. “It’s good that we’re here,” one of my companions says. “At least it’s relaxed here.” I feel the opposite might be true. The more the environment begs to be enjoyed with Hakuna Matata, the better the contours of our fears about the future are visible.
The next morning, I wake up to the sound of frustration in seven languages. People in hammocks and sitting cushions, clinging their phones tightly as they talk with an airline representative. “So is my flight canceled or not? What do you mean, you don’t know?!” One French guy keeps cursing in his room until the staff walks up to tell him to calm down.The next day, half of the hostel’s guests have dissipated. One of them tells me she’s found a last-minute back to Paris, and is leaving in the evening. “It’s either that or stay here until who knows when.”
Paradise destinations are stained by the resorts meant to cash in on them. How often does one not see tourists smirking at each other, cursing each other under their breath? This would be an actual paradise, one thinks, if only I could have it for myself.
But when all of the tourists are gone from the touristic edifice, and all that is left are folded-up lying chairs and empty tourist stalls, with no one there to accommodate the system that allows us to visit, the place just seems meaningless. Paradise seems further away than it has ever been. The salesmen have given up. “I’m about to go to my family,” one tells me. “Nothing’s left for us here.” Another tells me he doesn’t worry — corona doesn’t come to Africa! — but then asks cautiously how long the Italian woman in the guesthouse will be staying.
My trip to Stone Town is quiet, interrupted only by the occasional coughing of the driver.“You like music?”A cd with Japanese songs — god knows how long it’s been in there, or how it got there — starts playing. The driver thinks it’s English.
Outside, life goes on as it has — with prayer, bicycles, fruit stalls. Locals congregating in the shade as the Russians — the last ones to go — bask in the sun. The Russian guy I met on the beach had told me they had arrived yesterday — this was one of the only places where a resort vacation was still possible. He thinks he will just get back to work once he gets back. “No COVID in Moscow”.My driver isn’t worried in the slightest, and says the same. “No black people have died of corona. It’s a muzungu disease, because of your diets”, he laughs. A girl on Tinder gives me the facepalm emoji when I tell her I’m worried. “only 6 people affected!! and now they are doing well.” Stone Town itself is empty, save for some people heading to the mosque for their Zuhr prayers. Even the salesmen seem to have left.
Of course, the optimism of the locals would turn out to be premature. The country would head into a year of pandemic denial, with people talking of secret nighttime burials and untreated “breathing difficulties” for those who went to the hospital. In June 2020, then president John Magufuli ceased the publication of COVID-19 data, such as case numbers and deaths, noting it was “fuelling public panic.” He declared Tanzania “COVID-19-free”, due to a three-day prayer. By then, 509 cases and 21 deaths had been documented. Magufuli himself died of heart failure in March 2020, after weeks of speculation he was infected with COVID-19 himself.
In March 2021, Zanzibar and Tanzania are still among the few countries where no PCR-test is required before entry. Prevention measures such as masks and social distancing are still scarce. The beaches are still relatively empty, a local friend tells me, except for Eastern Europeans whose country lockdowns still allow them to go on holidays.
“There is no corona in Nungwi”, says one of the employees of the hostel I stayed in last year. “You must tell people to come visit.”
I will leave that up to them.