How an African island became the COVID conspiracy capital of the world
Stone Town, Zanzibar – On the deck of a three-story stilt house facing the Indian Ocean, Kalojan Georgiev and Ivan Belomorski answer emails. Georgiev’s 7-year-old daughter runs after her pet monkey Abu, named after Aladdin’s sidekick, while a yoga class and Swahili language class take place nearby. A few shirtless and barefoot travelers work alongside them remotely.
“It’s far too permanent to be just a COVID breakout,” said Belomorski, who has been in Zanzibar since March 2020. The two Bulgarians are part of a larger collection of foreigners who either got stuck in Zanzibar after the start of the pandemic, either came after former President John Magufuli asserted that Tanzania was COVID-free. The statement prompted COVID deniers to leave their stricter home countries and settle on the island they have dubbed “the land of the free.”
“I have met many foreigners with this point of view,” said Yusef Salim Njama, 46, tour operator and driver. “A guy from Germany told me that Corona was somebody’s business and was created to make money. I was surprised.”
Zanzibar is a world-famous tourist destination and a semi-autonomous Tanzanian archipelago valued for its ancient Stone Town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and white sandy beaches. Before the pandemic, more than 500,000 tourists visited Zanzibar each year. In 2020, that number fell to 183,000.
As countries around the world implemented measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, former Tanzania President John Magufuli took a different approach. After declaring that the country defeated the virus through prayer in June 2020, it opened the borders to travelers from all over the world. But as tourists descended on Zanzibar to take advantage of the lax rules, Tanzania fell into disarray as Magufuli continued to deny the severity of the virus and refused to do so. report COVID cases.
“Here, ignorance is happiness. I have met a lot of foreigners who shouldn’t be here, like doctors.
Now the country’s new president Samia Suluhu Hassan – inaugurated in March after Magufuli deceased due to what many believe to be complications from COVID-19 – moved away from its predecessor’s views on the pandemic and put in place a virus working group. Health workers hope the country will also start sharing case data and purchasing vaccines for the 58 million Tanzanians as part of the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative.
But in Zanzibar, some are acting as if the pandemic never existed at all. “People were bored of living in a room in their own country,” said Aakash Barmeda, a 24-year-old scuba diving instructor at One Ocean Dive Club in Stone Town. “Here, ignorance is happiness. I have met a lot of foreigners who shouldn’t be here, like doctors.
At a quiet beach bar in Stone Town, Rok, 27, and Matteo, 33, whose last names were omitted for privacy reasons, shared beers and cigarettes, killing time before their excursions of the afternoon. They have been in Zanzibar for several months; at a drunken New Years party in Slovenia, Rok and four friends discussed how well they are following the pandemic restrictions and decided to travel somewhere abroad to work remotely.
“When I got here I realized how fucked up I was [back home]Rok said, smiling behind dark sunglasses. “I was always in my head, leading this monotonous life and I was not the only one – you can see it by the number of ‘COVID refugees’ who are here.
According to Rok, anyone who has arrived in Zanzibar has searched “where are the open bars in the world” on Google. Until May 4, travelers could travel to Zanzibar without proof of a negative PCR test or vaccine. This meant that Paje, a town in eastern Zanzibar known for its party life, became one of the few places in the world where unmasked faces and naked bodies swirled to the beat of electro music, in defiance of the existence of COVID.
“Parties are an important part of Paje’s life,” said Rok. “There are amazing DJs like Ricardo Villalobos, who is making headlines in Berlin… and always a good ketamine.”
According to Rok, the island has become populated by three types of aliens: COVID conspiracy theorists, who believe the virus is a method of population control and have come to escape it; COVID restriction skeptics, who believe the virus is real but there is a “bigger game going on” linked to the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset Plan (Rok identified with this group); and those who believe COVID is real, but being young and healthy, they will escape relatively unscathed and do not want to spend time in lockdown. (Health professionals and experts have debunked the three theories here, here, and here.)
“People have come here to liberate; I had the time of my life, ”said Rok.
Michelle Hodgkinson, a South African multimedia storyteller, moved to Zanzibar in April 2020. She believes the island is on its way to becoming the new Bali or Tulum. “In South Africa there were countless restrictions. Seeing things from here is like the rest of the world is being held up. Yes, we have to be careful, but not excessive. Crowds of foreigners working in social media, digital PR and even cryptocurrency have taken up residence on the island and spend their weekdays hunched over laptops in coffee shops blasting Bob Marley and them. party weekends on the beach.
“People have come here to liberate; I had the time of my life.
After six months in Paje, Hodgkinson signed a lease for a building in Stone Town, which has a rooftop terrace and three apartments, two of which she rents. Zanzibar is on the verge of “very good things,” she said, as Tanzanian residency comes with land or business ownership. “A lot of people have been brought here for lack of other options, and now they are planning to come back or have chosen not to leave,” Hodgkinson added.
More than a year after the start of the pandemic, some of Zanzibar’s newcomers like Belomorski and Georgiev have chosen to start businesses, like the duo’s development of a resort called The Nest, aimed at “conscious” travelers. . Georgiev says The Nest, when completed, will offer sporting, artistic and scientific activities to an “open-minded clientele”.
“We even want to have TED talks around the campfires on the beach,” he said.
Other nearby islands have also seen a barrage of travelers tired of COVID. In Lamu, Kenya, British high society escaped winter closures with sunset boat cruises, fresh fish, and cocktails. From Charlotte Tilbury – billionaire makeup artist – to Mary Greenwell, former makeup artist and even Princess Diana actress Dominic west, many foreigners have taken up residence in Lamu over the past year, taking advantage of the lack of pandemic-related restrictions on the island.
Although Zanzibar’s new residents have arrived at a difficult time for Tanzania, Hodgkinson, like many others, believes COVID has not had the same impact on the island. “There are people who are sick with COVID but I don’t think it’s like the rest of the world even if they don’t report [cases], “she said.” There is a younger population, people spend a lot of time outdoors and the weather is hot all the time. ” (A lot young people around the world contracted and died of COVID-19. While spending time outdoors has been shown to reduce risk, time is not related to propagation.)
“Sure, COVID might be here, but the anxiety isn’t there. If someone died from COVID in Paje, trust me, the whole village would know, ”Belomorski said.
According to an island doctor who asked to remain anonymous due to workplace safety concerns, the first recorded case of COVID in Zanzibar dates back to April 2020. As of July, around 200 people had died. But right now the intensive care unit beds are empty and the hospital is seeing very few cases. “In my opinion, the virulence of the virus was low in the region and the fact that the Zanzibar population was scattered around the island helped,” the doctor said. “While things relaxed here, some could not believe the virus ever existed [life in] Zanzibar continued as if nothing had happened.
As Europe and the United States slowly open restaurants and businesses as more people get vaccinated, some of Zanzibar’s temporary settlers are now gone. This is a concern for Constantine Manda, director of the Impact Assessment Laboratory at the Tanzania Economic and Social Research Foundation, who believes that as rich countries vaccinate their populations, Tanzania could become a pariah state. .
“Sure, COVID might be here, but the anxiety isn’t there.”
“Tanzania’s unorthodox approach certainly made it famous, it was like free publicity,” Manda said. “But without vaccination in Tanzania, many potential visitors are at risk of shying away.”
Even as the new government has started to put security measures in place, Njama, the tour operator, believes it will take time to change attitudes both locally and abroad. And since Zanzibar has seen relatively few deaths from COVID, the economic blow is a priority for him and his colleagues.
“We face a lot of other challenges here, so all of our attention cannot be on COVID,” Njama said.
The writing of this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.