Between hope and despair: my personal fight against Covid-19

As they say, the struggle is real. It is nearly three months now since I started seriously worrying about the novel coronavirus. My worry, I presume, started relatively earlier than most of my compatriots back home in Tanzania and than many others here in the US, where I am currently based.

In late January 2020, I had to fly to New York, then take at least three connecting trains to New Jersey. Within a couple of days of my arrival in New Jersey, I had to fly to California for an interview. By then breaking news on the spread of the coronavirus were becoming a constant feature in the media. Our flight had to land in another airport due to windy conditions. At least that is what we were officially told. Later on, someone there told me one of the reasons we did not land in the other airport, was that it had been designated for airplanes that were evacuating people from China.

Whether that was true or not, the point is, I had already become so worried when most people around me were not. While in California, I remember chatting with someone who had arrived from China. I told him: “I think there is a chance for the world to stop this from reaching a point of no return in terms of spreading globally”. He nodded in agreement. Then I asked him what window do we have for that before we reach that tragic threshold. He said: “a couple of weeks”.

Little did I know then that a few days later, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, would utter these alarming words:

Soon that figure of a fortnight mentioned by my fellow traveller became a landmark in the collective imagination around the virus. 14 days of quarantine. 14 days of waiting to see if you are sick after you might have been exposed to corona. 14 days to evaluate how far the spread of the disease has gone when travelers move in numbers from a hotspot to an area without known community transmission.

For some reasons, I was still hopeful that it would not become a pandemic. Yet, I was scared when I saw a couple of people travelling with masks. On my way back I went to the airport that we could not land on earlier in California. Interestingly, only the staff at the Air China check-in sections wore masks.

When I saw how serious and careful these Chinese staff were about prevention and protection, I became even more worried.

To make things worse, I got a sore throat and started sneezing and coughing. Anxious, I drank a big cup of lemon tea. It helped a bit. Then I consumed some throat lozenges, something I normally resort to when my traditional remedies do not work out, or when I still feel it is too early to see a doctor.

Luckily enough, the symptoms disappeared a few days later. Since I usually get such conditions, especially during cold seasons and when I move across different weather zones, I became less worried. But I had to travel again.

I could not get a mask in Princeton, where I work as a lecturer and researcher in history and African studies. At this stage, the town was still quite relaxed about corona. On 9 February I tweeted:

I did not receive a response. At the airport, I asked someone who showed me a place where they sell masks, but they were out of stock. “Sorry for not getting a mask”, my mom wrote, “be careful and good luck”. As I travelled to Minnesota and, later, Virginia, I was fortunate enough not to encounter the challenges I faced in California.

In hindsight, I now understand why those travel experiences partly sparked my preoccupation with writing about and publicising preventive messages on coronavirus, which I have been doing over the last two months or so. I have done it with the hope that Africa, and more specifically, Tanzania, would prevent or contain the spread.

My recent intellectual activities have been deeply personal. In early 2019, I was diagnosed with a chronic condition that requires regular medical check-ups, and I suffered from asthma as a kid and once as a teenager.

My dear 86-years-old grandmother back in Dar es Salaam is on cancer remission. And I left Tanzania when my dear grandfather, aged 94, was being discharged from hospital after surgery.

So, to some of us writing or talking about this pandemic in Africa, it is not simply about journalism or scholarship. Our engagements are professional as much as they are personal. It is our attempt to contribute in whatever way we can to the collective fight against coronavirus. This is particularly urgent now, as Tanzania enters its worst phase after an arguably promising start.

It is in this spirit that on 26 March this year I wrote an article in my blog, Udadisi, titled Is Social Distancing And Flattening The Curve Alien To Africa? It was later republished in Corona Times. The piece was an attempt to show how we can all draw lessons from history about African agency in times of epidemics.

Recently, Tanzanian professional Frederick Boshe has written an article on the subject that resonates with my hopes and wishes on the need to use our historical and contemporary local realities to deal with the current pandemic.

Aptly titled How Covid-19 Is Giving East Africa A Sense Of Déjà Vu, his article revisits the history of the Spanish flu in Tanzania. Some of the lessons he highlighted were how “Zanzibar was able to get the virus on hold thanks to quick and decisive action to quarantine their island”, and how “Tanganyika [Tanzania under colonial rule] failing to act due to the war led to the loss of over 1% of its population”.

How he managed to get to write all that, gives a glimpse of how many Tanzanians are trying to grapple with it, as it is virtually close to home for everyone.

“Personally”, Boshe writes, “I stumbled upon all this information in the past 24 hours of drafting this article. My insomnia led me down a rabbit hole to try and find out if my country never came up against a pandemic before”. Our African stories are out there, and all that governments and global media need to do is use them.

As for me, I will continue to publicise critical, but constructive articles from the continent in Udadisi. To mention a few recent examples: Ashura Kayupayupa’s How #Corona Separated My Child From Me, Ronald Ndesanjo’s #Covid-19: Trapped Between Epidemiology And Mythology, and Zuhura Yunus’ #Coronavirus And My Journey Between Tanzania And The UK.

I will also continue to participate in, and share widely, the weekly public Zoom sessions on Covid-19 that Dr Frank Minja moderates every Saturday with other Tanzanian doctors.

Last but not least, I will continue to share informative videos with practical solutions, such as Rachel Kangalu's one on Making A Traditional Tanzanian Mask For Protection From #Corona.


Because both you and I can play our part in #FlatteningTheCurve. Our personal and professional stories can inform crucial interventions to save lives, and help society get through the other side of this pandemic.

Chambi Chachage is a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer at Princeton University. His twitter account is @Udadisi

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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