By February, things were looking up; it had taken a long time to get my research clearance, residency permit, research really going on my 10 month Fulbright grant in Tanzania. My daughter had finally made some friends at school; we had settled in. I was studying societal and policy responses to mental health and Tanzania, and interviews were finally happening. When COVID started in China, didn't think much of it initially. (Yes, I should have paid more attention, given what I study). The TZ government- like many in Africa- cut flights, and refused to bring home TZ students who were in China. No cases in Africa, which looked good for the continent. Increasingly, there were news articles, people talking about "Corona" (this was pre the official naming of COVID). And, alas, one day I was walking with a friend from Japan at a TZ university and someone yelled "Corona" at her. This was mid-January. Cases started inching up in Europe, and Washington state in the USA. But it seemed so far away from the TZ city where I was living. I asked the cab driver who took my daughter to school if he was worried, "Oh yes! If it comes here it will hurt!" (kali in Kiswahili) Pretty soon it was all over the radio on our daily drives to school-- corona, corona. I wrote a piece for the Monkey Cage mid-February about how there weren't African cases, but African political leaders and IOs would need to think about the important role of civil society, messaging, collaboration, etc. Still no cases. Still seemed distant. Would this be the epidemic that spared Africa? For once, no "scary outbreak" coming from the continent.
But it quickly became real. My daughter, a first-year student in the US, called early one morning, "Bad news, mom." I knew instantly, though I was in a 5 am stupor. Her university was closing, going to online classes, and she had 4 days to pack up, store stuff, and find a new home. Alas, her parents and sister were in TZ. Grandparents-- 80 years+--to the rescue. A few days later, the IIE Commission that oversees the Fulbright grants sent a late Friday afternoon letter, essentially saying, 'Fulbright scholars are strongly encouraged to make plans to return to the US as soon as possible." We were out at dinner with friends and my WhatsApps were beep, beeping. The 8 Fulbright scholars around the country, trying to figure out what to do? When to go? Is this immediate? 2 weeks from now? A requirement? Information was spotty, as of course, it would be in a fluid situation.
Still, we were thinking there is time, plenty of time. We will just push up some of my research, get my daughter through her Form 4 mock exams that end at the end of March, then another week in Dar for some last interviews, and then, home by Easter! Just in time for the blooming redbuds and dogwoods in the Tennessee forest. Except, not to be. Within 3 days we had gone from leaving in 2-3 weeks to leaving in 1 week to leaving in 2 days. Flights were being cut as we mulled things over, and plans to go through South Africa and then on Delta to Atlanta had to be scrapped when SA put travel limits on non SA citizens flying into the country. No exams to finish for Isabel; some pretty haphazard goodbyes to colleagues at my host institution; and some incomplete research. On the day we left Dodoma (TZ official capital, where my host institution was located), the country announced its first case in Arusha. (a Tanzanian woman who had travelled to Belgium.) The government went into overdrive-- shutting schools and universities for 30 days, banning public gatherings, etc. (So, didn't really matter that my daughter couldn't finish those Mock exams.) On my last day in Dar--ever the researcher scrounging to save something of the planned research agenda--I travelled to a highly impoverished neighborhood in Dar to interview a Pentecostal Pastor about religious views of mental health. When I stepped out of the Uber, it was a bit eerie; I heard a distant "corona!", "corona!" "corona!" Suddenly realized this was about me. The pastor's wife shuffled me inside the church quickly.
Travel back to the US was also eerie, but for other reasons. Went from Dar to Dubai to NYC to Atlanta on March 19. Because we had not been in Europe, China or Iran, we could check "no" on the health declaration forms and quickly got through the health screening. As I stood in line to give my form and have my temperature taken, I was struck by a few things. First, people were pretty darn patient. Of course, we were not in the first wave of returnees to the US and it seems that the health authorities had gotten the screening process down. Or maybe we had just learned to be patient, given all of our time in TZ. Second, I had never been on a flight with so many elderly people. The line of people in wheelchairs was incredible (at least 20 people). I wondered where they all had come from, and I assumed they wanted to be near family or maybe in a context with better health care. (Though given the shortages of tests, masks, discounting of science, etc. in USA, maybe not the best choice?) Third, I had never been in JFK or Atlanta airport when there were so few people. It was spooky. Friday morning should be bustling. And Friday afternoon, the drive from Atlanta airport to our home in Tennessee should be horrendous with traffic. But no cars; we were just sailing through. Definitely something not right.
Our small town--a university town in rural Tennessee--has gone under a "safer at home" ordinance. The Vice Chancellor--who is also the town mayor (it's a weird set up) issued the order last week. Students are gone, except a few international students who are holed up in a dorm, all separated. As international travellers, we have stayed home the last week, and the Cumberland Plateau has been foggy, cold and rainy, as if to dampen our mood more. Friends have brought groceries, and we WhatsApp our oldest--still with the grandparents, who seem to forget when she has online classes and interrupt her for lunch, etc. Making plans to "rescue" her, though don't want to get the parents sick. She's a 12 hour car ride away.
Daily we are shocked at the actions of some US leaders. It looked bad from abroad, but somehow being here makes it even worse. On one hand, we applaud people like our mayor/VC who have taken the threat seriously (there are at least 1200 cases in Tennessee). We know they have taken heat for such decisions. On the other hand, President Trump never ceases to dumbfound us with his discrediting of science, his suggestions of medical remedies, and his underlying belief that some people are expendable (the elderly) for the sake of the stock market. But more on that later....