Four weeks after reopening, it’s high time for an update. I, Kira, would rather call it a “comment” this time, because attention, it will be personal.
It is now a month ago that the first volunteers have moved back to our STEP Africa house. We are overjoyed and enjoy the newfound everyday life very much. It is unbelievable how quickly time flies – yesterday, Anna, one of the first arrivals in July – already left again. At the same time, it is very fulfilling to see how motivated and enthusiastic our volunteers have been in their project work. That makes us very proud and grateful!
If you have followed our social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram) during the past four weeks, you may have gotten the impression that we live in a corona-free parallel universe. Where are the masks? What about the 6 feet distance rule? Isn’t that completely irresponsible? We are well aware of the effect some of our pictures might have caused and we are aware that not everyone will approve of them. So I would like to make a few things clear.
In Tanzania there is no rule or law that requires you to wear a mask. Shops, government offices and other institutions decide for themselves whether they want to implement such a rule or not. Nevertheless, even here the education about the coronavirus is very present. Hand washing and sanitizing is mandatory almost everywhere, attention is drawn to the minimum distance and in many cases the body temperature is checked before entering supermarkets, banks etc. In this regard, our volunteers, projects and other persons around our organization can act independently.
All legally required regulations have been implemented in the STEP Africa House. All areas and rooms are being sanitized several times a day. There are several hand washing and hand disinfection stations spread across the hostel area. Employees undergo daily health checks and are thoroughly informed about hygiene measures. Our rooms and the whole house are regularly ventilated with fresh air. There is the possibility for “physical distancing” everywhere. Anyone who does not want to drive into the project with the Daladala (the often quite overloaded minibuses) can either walk to nearby projects or take a ride with a tuktuk (a kind of small, open taxi). The projects have developed their own prevention concepts, which they each consider to be practicable and sensible, and which of course our volunteers follow, too.
If this may seem lax from a western point of view, please be aware that countries around the world observe their national infection rates and lift measures and count on personal responsibility of each citizen if the situation visibly calms down. The situation in the Tanzanian hospitals is quiet, almost all of the 84 COVID treatment centers that had been set up nationwide have now closed. Life goes on!
In order to keep the situation under control in the long term, from this month a negative Covid test certificate will be set as an requirement to enter the United Republic of Tanzania. A measure that I consider very useful. However, this should not hide the fact that the health checks upon entry have already been stricter since the opening of air traffic in June than that of many other western countries, including those of Germany, where until now there has not even been an obligatory temperature check. The situation in the hospitals here in the country is calm. We also hear this daily from our volunteer Gioia, who is a medical student completing her internship in the public “Meru District Hospital” (a short report from her will also follow shortly).
Reputable media such as Spiegel-Online.de have published reports in the past few weeks stating that the situation in Tanzania is not under control and allegedly “corona dead” are buried secretly at night. Unfortunately, one can only shake one’s head at “reports” from reporters who are not even in the country themselves.
To make one thing clear: I’m definitely not part of the group of COVID deniers. I and we all acknowledge that this is a very serious and potentially fatal disease. A COVID disease can be dangerous for all ages. Nonetheless, there are clear risk groups and these include, in particular, older people and those with multiple previous illnesses. Several independent studies now suggest that the low average age on the African continent means that the number of people infected and killed does not reach the proportions of western nations.
How can it still be that life in Tanzania just goes on like this? Basically my explanation for this is very simple. African countries are used to the presence of the “unknown”. It is simply not uncommon here to be infected with diseases that are potentially fatal and also that there are not effective medications for every disease (or those one could afford). In contrast to western nations, in which hardly any illness goes undiagnosed and hardly any diagnosis – due to lack of knowledge of correct treatment or lack of effective medication – remains untreated. Tanzanians are used to this “unknown”, it is part of everyday life. In Tanzania, people, often children and young adults, die of tuberculosis, measles, cholera, malaria and of course HIV / AIDS – the last Ebola outbreak in the Congo was also just a stone’s throw away. So now there is COVID-19 and it becomes part of this already long list. The difference? COVID-19 is a new, unexplored disease and it is not only spreading to the African continent or to developing countries in the “Third World”, it is everywhere! And so it has become omnipresent in the international media. Ebola in Congo? A small side note, on page three. Malaria dead in rural Tanzania? “That’s how it is there in those poor countries.” COVID-19, however, affects a generation of people who grew up in the post-war period of western industrialized nations with the best medical care, who are not used to an unknown danger. Feverishly trying to contain the danger, stop the spread and find a vaccine. But let’s be honest. Whether and when there will be a vaccine is completely uncertain and, above all, how long it would protect against an infection. An influenza vaccination has to be repeated annually and does not even protect against all influenza viruses. To date, there is no effective vaccine against HIV or malaria. Exterminate COVID-19, that will probably not be possible. We have to get used to the presence of the virus, whether we like it or not.
Tanzania was hit much harder by the economic consequences of the pandemic than by the health consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people, especially those who worked in the tourism industry and related sectors, lost their jobs or had to and have to adjust to many months without income for themselves and their families. Tanzania does not have a functioning social security system, there is no unemployment benefit or other social assistance benefits (with the exception of pension insurance for permanent employees, which applies to very few people). On average, a working person provides 9 family members with their salary, mostly children, parents, grandparents who cannot work themselves or live in remote villages. This supply chain has broken down due to the pandemic. And yet Tanzania was hit comparatively mildly, because President John Magufuli opted for a different solution compared to most (including African) countries. The schools have reopened since the end of June, and infection numbers are not published to avoid panic and uncertainty. The country has also reopened for tourism and the reception of international guests. We often come across the view from outside that this decision was negligent. However, even travelers from countries with officially very strict Corona security measures are surprised at how carefully and well organized the processes at the airport work.
STEP Africa was also hit hard by the Corona crisis. As happy as we are about the return of our volunteers, it cannot hide the fact that 85% of our volunteers have canceled or postponed their stay for this year. It was also never an option for us to cut employee salaries and benefits during this time. Without the support of family and friends, we would not have been and still would not be able to accomplish this. But we do not see ourselves in the right to whine, because after all we are all in the same boat. We all have the same responsibility to prevent humanity from getting lost within all of this!
To make another short jump to Europe. According to the Robert Koch Institute, the vast majority of newly infected Germans are NOT infected in the “high risk countries” advertised by the RKI, which also includes Tanzania, but in Germany within their own circles. Let’s not fool ourselves. Corona is everywhere and it is becoming increasingly clear how difficult it is to avoid an infection, even with a minimum distance and mask. The travel warnings (from which almost all European countries are of course excluded) stigmatize entire countries and continents, and the global economy suffers enormously. People in the particularly hard-hit tourism industry do not know what to do because, as I have noticed in the past few months, you can hardly talk against political decisions, no matter how different the reality on site is. The fear and worry of many remains and not even anyone can be resented. I have been following the corona pandemic here in Tanzania from the start and therefore from an African perspective. I can only roughly imagine the all-round presence of the crisis in the European media and above all in everyday life. And I confess that I would have probably made the same decision as 85% of our volunteers had I been in their situation.
But I am here now and it is very important to me to explain and tell how it is here in Tanzania. Tanzanian people are pragmatic and so life goes on. And that’s why our Instagram pictures appear as if Corona had never existed … now you know the background!
In the past few weeks I have often heard the question of whether volunteering makes any sense this year. I can also be accused of being biased, after all I am interested in volunteers coming to us. Nevertheless, I would like to make it clear that I live here with my children myself and have felt safe at all times. I would not “lure” anyone into a country that I believe bears a greater risk for my volunteers than in Europe. So my answer is: Yes, volunteering is really worth it! The projects currently have hardly any volunteers to promote their work and further advance it. It’s quiet, nature is breathtaking and almost untouched by tourists, everyday life in Arusha is much more relaxed, most of the locals are really happy about the white people, who are slowly returning. Volunteers are welcome as always and more than ever and that the current time has “once in a lifetime” potential, our current volunteers would probably sign it 🙂
One crucial question remains. What about medical care here in Arusha? I get this question asked not only during Corona times, after all, as an outsider, you inevitably also have the African bush clinics and poorly equipped hospitals from the reports on developing countries in mind. Arusha is the largest city in Northern Tanzania and is home to some very good private clinics that are not fully but close to western standards. My confidence in the hospitals is so great that I gave birth by Caesarean section to my daughter here and was well looked after, cared for and felt safe at all times. And of course these are the clinics to which we accompany our volunteers in the event of any illness.
What’s next? It’s a crazy world right now so who knows? In any case, the borders in Tanzania remain open and visitors are welcome – and of course our volunteers 🙂 We are here to hold the fort and will keep you updated. We enjoy our time with the wonderful volunteers who are with us and use the remaining time for further training, improvements to our processes and offers and another exciting project, which I will report on in my next update.
As always, I am available for any questions and concerns.