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By Wilbard Kombe (KNOW Work Package 1 Co-Investigator & Regional Lead for Africa), Alphonce Kyessi, Tatu M. Limbumba KNOW Dar es Salaam City Partner Investigators.


As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, Tanzania experienced its first victim in March 2020 in Arusha city; the news spread like bushfire across the country and in major urban areas where in-ward migration with the outside world is high. The information was received with fear and panic. At first ‘Corona’ was seen as a disease for well-off people who travelled and brought the disease to the city. However, as the number of local infections increased, the city was hit with the reality of the pandemic across social groups. Dar es Salaam, with a population of about 5 million has over 70% of the population living in informal settlements, the majority living in vulnerable overcrowded housing and facing extreme levels of basic services deprivation as well as income poverty. Indeed, the city has one among the largest population sizes in Africa (Worall et al, 2017).

With irregular sources of income and employment opportunities; everyday work is manifested in the myriad of informal economic activities around homes and those spread out across the Dar es Salaam on streets and open markets. The need to put food on the table for the majority of the urban poor, has largely influenced protection and prevention choices against the COVID-19 pandemic at household, community, and government levels. Even against the threat of pandemic and possible loss of life, the question of total lock-down was almost seen as non-option from the very beginning. Ultimately, the government opted for a partial lockdown. This comprised the closure or schools, colleges and universities and the banning of public meetings/gatherings. Also, aggressive measures to raise public awareness (through social media, local radio stations and television), regular hand-washing, social distancing, and the wearing of protective masks were publicised to curb the spread of the virus.

Figure 1: Hand-washing buckets in front of houses in informal settlements. Source: Authors, fieldwork studies, April-May 2020

Over 65 per cent of the Dar es Salaam City dwellers partake in informal economic activities that contribute significantly towards their livelihoods. No wonder, there has been appeals to government from local communities especially informal sector operators such as streets and market place vendors, boda boda, daladala operators (public buses) and so on not to enforce lock-down as this would deny many access to sources of livelihoods, plunging the poor into transient poverty.

It was against this background of ‘no lock-down’ decision that the KNOW-Dar es Salaam Ardhi University team interviewed 15 community members of the Hanna Nassif informal settlement (4 men and 11 women), to explore their narratives regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were used to corroborate stories from the residents. Hanna Nassif is an old inner-city informal settlement that is about 3-4km from the city centre. The settlement is densely populated due to the proximity to the city centre where many residents earn their livelihoods.

In the wake of the pandemic, the government directed the general public that despite an absence of lockdown, they should take precautionary, preventive and protective measures around four strategic action areas that have been also widely used in the other countries namely:

i. Social distancing in public gatherings such as weddings, funerals and worship;

ii. Frequent hand washing with running water;

iii. Self-protection – wearing of masks;

iv. Partial lockdown – closure of schools and universities, suspension of public gatherings such as sports, weddings, funerals, worship and pubs.

Coping with local realities

Social distancing and suspension of public gatherings such as sports, weddings, prayers in mosques and churches.

During the FGDs, the members of the community reported awareness regarding the threat of (COVID-19) or ‘Corona’ as it is popularly known; they asserted that social distancing had been advocated by the government at all levels and ‘Mtaa’ (community) leaders were required to monitor and ensure compliance. But local communities were still gathering in crowds and disregarding social distancing. For example, the youth continue to play board games such as Bao, Draft and Pool. Community members continued to assemble in funeral ceremonies and in local drinking places.

“…is it because they do not understand the impact of the virus or are they just resisting and being careless. There are crowds during funerals and people are still not careful; just the other day we were burying so-and-so and there were a lot of people attending without thinking of the threat of the corona virus

(A Local leader)

At the household level, women were facing difficulties in controlling children who were at home because of school closures.

“We try to prevent them from playing outside with other children but it is difficult especially in multi-family homes because the space is limited, so they go out on the streets. If you have a TV, you are able to turn to a cartoon channel to keep the children occupied and stay in the house”

(Women, respondent)

Figure 2: Everyday activities confined to premises close to houses. Source: Jathiniel Kombe, June 2020


Members of the FGDs also reported that family and friends do not visit each other as often as they did before because of the corona virus saying,

“we have tried to adjust to this lifestyle; we call them occasionally over the mobile phone”.

Frequent hand washing with running water

Generally, many people were adhering to the guideline to wash or sanitise their hands. Indeed, buckets with taps and soap were put in public places such as markets, in front of restaurants and outside the local offices. The municipal council provide modified buckets with taps were installed mainly at markets entryways and Mtaa Offices. Shopkeepers have also provided water buckets and soap in front of their houses.

“Majority of people complies and washes their hands. In Hanna Nassif we do not have a problem with water supply, so regular washing of hands is not a problem. Some of us carry sanitisers in our bags”

(Woman respondent)

Family members are also encouraged to wash their hands, especially children. Initially, many houses had bucket stands on their front verandas. This however, seems to being gradually abandoned.

Self-protection –wearing masks

Initially, many people were complying with the requirement to wear masks in public and in crowded places. This measure seems to have been understood by everyone both at community and household levels.

“We are not even allowed to board the bus without masks. It is for your own protection”

(Male respondent)

The public affirmatively responded with a variety of improvised masks. Some were using handkerchiefs, Niqab (Muslim women) as well as covering their faces with a local wrap –khanga.

The FGDs members reported however to have noticed changes in behaviour in terms of wearing masks. They asserted:

“…in the beginning, i.e. in March and April, everyone was strict about wearing masks. But come May and June, many people have relaxed and there are places, for example at bus stations, local market stalls or youth play areas where masks are not anymore worn. “…awareness and education are still needed on the corona virus”

(Male respondent)

“…while we are sure that the pandemic is still with us, it appears that infections are declining. We do not hear reports on many deaths as we did before. And we have been told by our political leaders not to fear because fear is worse than the pandemic. But sometimes it is confusing, so it’s important for everyone to take care of him/herself”

(Male respondent)

Despite the pandemic, at household and community levels the demand for masks has opened up opportunities for tailors to sew local cloth-masks and sell them, contributing to income generation. Unlike the imported masks, these masks that can be washed cost TShs. 500-3000 depending on the material used and the seller. Popular blue surgical masks cost about TShs. 2,500 (now TShs. 2,000) and N.95 cost about TShs. 12,000 (now TShs. 8,000). Locally designed cloth masks are becoming increasingly popular because they are more affordable and can be washed.

Figure 3: Public transport in Dar es Salaam wearing of face-mask declining. Source: Jathiniel Kombe, June 2020

Partial vis-à-vis No lockdown

Most of the respondents did not favour lock-down despite the threat of the infection spreading though they were aware that schools, colleges and universities had closed. They appreciated the “no-lock down” decision by the government and noted that staying at home would not have worked because many household members needed to go out to earn income to feed their families.

“We cannot afford to stock up on food because of our poverty. Only people with high incomes can do that. We already face hardships because of lack of stable income sources; and with lockdown, life would have been more difficult”.

However, despite the government stand, some firms/offices had closed, affecting the flow of business in the streets. A woman food vendor noted:

“…business is slow, we do not sell food as we used to because people are staying at home, they do not go to work. I used to make Tshs. 40,000 a day, now I hardly get TShs. 15,000.

“My husband has been laid off at his work place because there is no business.”

Figure 4: Face-mask and social-distancing declining. Source: Jathiniel Kombe, June-July 2020

Impact of the pandemic

As households in Hanna Nassif informal settlement struggle to put food on the table and meet other basics, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities and the dependence on informal activities and networks which are characteristics of many African cities. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to community include:

  • Loss of jobs and other sources of livelihoods: the poor have been hit hard;

  • Vulnerable households have been exposed, especially the elderly and chronically sick have suffered most due to the pandemic; primarily because of decrease in food and support from friends and family. Each of the 15 members of the FGD was able to identify between 1 and 2 vulnerable households which inevitably required social support at least food;

  • Lost lives - there have been deaths (2 cases reported) in our community due to the virus.

  • Children stay at home however many families face financial difficulties because before COVID-19 children used to eat at school. Staying at home means two to three meals have to be provided per day; at the same time, livelihoods have been shaken;

  • Impacts on livelihoods - decrease in earnings e.g. for Mama Ntilie (women food vendors); due to decline in people going out on the streets; as well as reduction of meals (resort to one meal per day).

A positive outcome reported is many men are spending unusually more time with their families (including children); and some have had time to follow up on their education and home-schooling.

Community views

  • There is a need for more systematic engagement of local communities in fighting the virus through education and sensitisation. Some community members do not seem to take the pandemic seriously. “…we need more information dissemination channels so that communities take the pandemic more seriously”;

  • The longer we live with the threat of the virus, the less we are afraid of it. We seem to be getting ‘used’ to it. “Corona inavyoendelea kukaa tunazoea”;

  • Corona has instilled the hygiene practices – people of all works of lives are washing their hands regularly;

  • Corona has shown that we have to prepare for unpredictable;

  • We need coherent (not mixed) messages to ensure compliance with protective measures by local communities; through own will; and

  • We need correct information so that we can protect ourselves and prevent others from infection.

Figure 5: Progressional examples of pandemic restrictions and community response. Source: Authors, fieldwork studies, March-June 2020



The 'Corona’ pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities inherent among particularly the poor in the rapidly urbanising cities of the global South. It has also shown the value of coherent policy responses at all levels of government towards pandemics that threaten not only lives of the poor also the affluent. Institutional frameworks are critical in ensuring that protection and preventive approaches are understood and adhered by communities. Information that is adequately shared helps individuals and communities in general make correct decisions and choices. In addition, grass-root institutions play important role in ensuring that messages received are not mixed and measures adopted by communities are consistent.

The public concern for and general reluctance towards total lock-down emphasises the difficult choices that relate to public health risks in chronically poor communities. It also underscores the importance of partnerships between the government and local actors who are closer to the communities and have a greater stake in ensuring their safety and survival. Finally, in Dar es Salaam, the universality of the COVID-19 preventive and protective measures seem to have been put to question and contextualised.


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