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Story Publication logo May 25, 2021

How an African Island Became the World's COVID Conspiracy Capital

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People standing on a road in Tanzania
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Despite being one of the earliest in East Africa to implement temperature checks, Tanzania quickly...

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On the deck of a three-story stilt house in view of the Indian Ocean, Kalojan Georgiev and Ivan Belomorski respond to 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 course take place nearby. A few bare-chested and barefoot travelers work remotely next to them.

“This is way too permanent to be just a COVID escape,” 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 onset of the pandemic or arrived after former president John Magufuli’s assertion Tanzania was COVID-free. The declaration prompted COVID-deniers to leave their stricter home countries and relocate to the island they have nicknamed “the land of the free.”

“I met many foreigners with this view,” said Yusef Salim Njama, 46, a tour operator and driver. “One guy from Germany told me corona is someone’s business and it was created to make money. I was surprised.”

Zanzibar is a world renowned tourist-destination and semi-autonomous Tanzanian archipelago beloved for its antique Stone Town—a UNESCO world Heritage site—and white sandy beaches. Prior to the pandemic, more than 500,000 tourists visited Zanzibar yearly. In 2020, that number dropped to 183,000. 

As countries around the world enforced measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanzania’s former president, John Magufuli, took a different approach. After declaring that the country had beaten the virus through prayer in June 2020, he opened the borders to travelers from all over the world. But while tourists descended upon Zanzibar to take advantage of lax rules, Tanzania spun into disarray as Magufuli continued to deny the severity of the virus and refused to report COVID cases.

“Here ignorance is bliss. I’ve 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 died due to what many believe were complications from COVID-19—has distanced herself from her predecessor’s views on the pandemic and set up a virus task force. Healthcare workers hope that the country will also begin sharing case data and procure vaccines for Tanzania’s 58 million people through the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative.

But in Zanzibar, some act like the pandemic never existed at all. “People were bored of living in one room in their own countries,” said Aakash Barmeda, a 24-year-old scuba diving instructor at One Ocean Dive Club in Stone Town. “Here ignorance is bliss. I’ve met a lot of foreigners who shouldn't be here, like doctors.”

In a quiet beach bar in Stone Town, 27-year-old Rok and 33-year-old Matteo, whose last names have been withheld for privacy, shared beers and cigarettes, killing time before their afternoon’s excursions. They have been in Zanzibar for several months; during a drunken New Year’s party in Slovenia, Rok and four friends discussed how miserable they were following pandemic restrictions and decided to go somewhere abroad to work remotely.

“When I came here, I realized how f----- up I was [back home],” Rok said, smiling behind dark sunglasses. “I was always in my head, leading this monotonic life and I wasn’t the only one—you can see by the number of ‘COVID refugees’ that are here.”

According to Rok, anyone that has arrived in Zanzibar has searched “where are bars open in the world” on Google. Until May 4, travelers could go to Zanzibar without proof of a negative PCR test or a vaccine. This meant that Paje, a town in eastern Zanzibar known for its party life, became one of the few places in the world for mask-less faces and naked bodies to gyrate to the drum of electro music, in defiance of COVID’s existence.

“A big component of Paje life is the parties,” said Rok. “There are incredible DJs like Ricardo Villalobos, who headlines in Berlin…and consistently good Ketamine.”

According to Rok, the island has become populated by three types of foreigners: The COVID conspiracy theorists, who believe the virus is a method for population control and have come to escape it; the COVID-restriction skeptics, who think the virus is real but that there is a “bigger game happening” linked to the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset Plan (Rok identified with this group); and those that believe COVID is real, but since they are young and healthy, will escape relatively unscathed and do not want to spend time under lockdown. (Healthcare workers and experts have debunked all three theories here, here, and here.)

“People came here to release; I have had the time of my life,” said Rok.

Michelle Hodgkinson, a South African multimedia storyteller, relocated 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. ... Yes we should be cautious but not excessive.” A host of foreigners working in social media, digital public relations, and even cryptocurrency have made the island home, and spend their weekdays hunched over laptops in cafes blasting Bob Marley and weekends partying on the beach. 

“People came here to release; I have had the time of my life.”

After six months in Paje, Hodgkinson signed a lease on a building in Stone Town, which has a roof terrace and three apartments, two of which she rents. Zanzibar is on the “brink of really good things,” she said, as Tanzanian residency comes with ownership of land or business. “Many people were funneled here for lack of other options, and now they either plan to return or have chosen not to leave,” Hodgkinson added.

More than a year into the pandemic, some of Zanzibar’s new arrivals like Belomorski and Georgiev have chosen to set up businesses, like the duo’s development of a beach resort called The Nest—aimed at “conscious” travelers. Georgiev says that The Nest, when completed, will provide sports, art and science activities to an “open-minded clientele.” 

“We even want to host TED talks around campfires on the beach,” he professed.

Other islands nearby have also experienced a barrage of COVID-weary travelers. In Lamu, Kenya, British high-society escaped winter lockdowns with sunset boat cruises, fresh fish and cocktails. From Charlotte Tilbury—billionaire make-up owner—to Mary Greenwell, Princess Diana's former make-up artist, and even actor Dominic West, many foreigners have made Lamu home over the past year, taking advantage of the island’s lack of pandemic-related restrictions.

Though Zanzibar’s newest residents arrived at a difficult time for Tanzania, Hodgkinson, like many others, believes that COVID hasn’t had the same impact on the island. “There are people that are sick with COVID but I don’t think it’s like the rest of the world, even though they’re not reporting [cases],” she said. “There’s a younger population, people spend a lot of time outdoors, and the weather is permanently hot.” (Many young people around the world have contracted COVID-19 and died from it. While spending time outdoors has been proven to lower riskweather is unrelated to spread.)

“Of course COVID might be here, but the anxiety is not here. If someone died of COVID in Paje, believe me, the entire village would know,” Belomorski said. 

According to a doctor on the island who asked to remain anonymous due to job safety concerns, the first recorded case of COVID in Zanzibar was in April 2020. By July, around 200 people had died. But at present, ICU beds are empty and the hospital sees very few cases. “In my opinion, the virulence of the virus was low in the region and the fact that Zanzibar’s population is scattered over the island helped,” said the doctor. “As things relaxed here, some failed to believe if the virus ever existed as [life in] Zanzibar was going on as if nothing had happened.”

With Europe and the United States slowly opening up restaurants and businesses as more and more people get vaccinated, some of Zanzibar’s temporary settlers have now departed. This is a worry for Constantine Manda, the director of the Impact Evaluation Lab at Tanzania's Economic and Social Research Foundation, who thinks that as rich countries vaccinate their populations, Tanzania might become a pariah state.

“Of course COVID might be here, but the anxiety is not here.”

“Tanzania’s unorthodox approach certainly made it famous, it was like free advertising,” said Manda. “But without vaccinations in Tanzania, many potential visitors may shy away.”

Even as the new government has begun instituting safety measures, Njama, the tour operator, believes it will take time to change both local and foreign attitudes. And as Zanzibar has seen relatively few COVID deaths, the economic hit is a matter of priority for him and his colleagues.

“We face many other challenges here so our full attention cannot be on COVID,” Njama said. 

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