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Facing the pandemic in a low-income country: Experiences from Tanzania

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

The official number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tanzania stands at 300 (as of April 28th). However, as in other countries, Tanzania's testing capacity is very limited which makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation. The epicenter of the outbreak is Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital.

Dar es Salaam's bustling city center

Overall, the government acted early with measures to curb infections by closing schools and universities, enforcing self-quarantine of travelers arriving from foreign countries and banning mass gatherings – though churches and mosques remain open and people are encouraged to continue visiting and praying at their places of worship. Tanzania is taking a special stance regarding the balance between keeping the economy running vs. imposing restrictions to minimize the spread. While neighbouring countries have implemented strict lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus, Tanzania has so far refrained from taking such measures in an attempt to minimize the impact on an already strained economy.

Road side shop with "fundis" (mechanics) repairing a water pump

While the outbreak still seems to be centered in major cities, our staff and artisans in Ngara, the remote northwest of Tanzania, are worried and have felt the impact of the pandemic already. With the breakdown in trade, prices for certain goods such as sugar have started increasing. Small business are suffering as customers stay home and the tourism sector, which is essential to the country’s economy, has all but collapsed due to the breakdown in international travel.

A major worry is that the safety measures to contain the spread are more difficult to implement in a high-poverty context like Tanzania. People are more likely to live in poorly ventilated quarters and in close proximity to others. Peoples’ houses often lack basic amenities like running water or electricity. Soap is a common good used by households but in tough economic times, even soap can be hard to afford. Furthermore, public transport, markets etc. are frequently overloaded with masses of people. Staying home and stocking up on food supplies is not an option for people who live day by day. All these aspects of life in Tanzania make social distancing and basic safety practices like washing hands a lot more challenging.

Collecting water from a spring

On top of it all, Tanzania is far from having a functional health system. Even in a normal year without Coronavirus, hospitals and local clinics operate in a constant state of being overwhelmed with a lack of medical personnel, infrastructure and supplies.

Unfortunately, there is a high prevalence of underlying health risk factors like malnutrition, HIV, TB, Malaria, Dengue etc. all of which increase the risk of severe consequences of people infected with the virus.

A glimmer of hope is that Tanzania has a very young population which could be beneficial as the COVID-19 is most dangerous for the elderly population. From the streets of Dar es Salaam and Ngara, we hear stories of everyone doing their best to stay safe. People are making their own masks to wear when leaving the house. The usually overfilled “daladalas” (public transport mini buses) are getting emptier by the day. Small roadside shops have installed hand-washing stations for customers and larger supermarkets even scan body temperature of anyone entering their stores. So while the recommended safety measures are more challenging to implement in a context like Tanzania, the population seems to be taking the situation very seriously and is doing their best to stay safe.

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