COVID Across Cultures

Retha Ferguson via Pexels CC0

Returning home from Tanzania, I realized my need to travel was putting others at risk.

In my small Tanzanian home, there is no electricity or running water, and rice and beans are always on the menu. Life is simple and lived close to the earth. My husband and I moved to this rural, mountain village four months ago to teach English and volunteer at an HIV/AIDS clinic.

When COVID-19 hit, our organization gave us a chance to leave, but we chose to stay. The borders and airports have closed. However, living a full day’s journey from Dar es Salaam insulates us from the worst of the virus’ repercussions.

Most people in our village are farmers. The virus doesn’t change the fact that food needs to be put on tables. So, we decide to follow their lead by making a garden. We start to monitor our seedling’s growth as fervently as Americans are tracking the virus’ epidemic curves.

One day I answer the door to see a man gripping a bright red bucket. He explains that a local organization is giving everyone handwashing stations. Later that week, I’m handed a surgical mask when I arrive at the clinic and the doctor gathers everyone together. Even with my tenuous grasp of Swahili, I understand that he’s instructing us to wash our hands for 20 seconds and to avoid touching our faces.

Everyone adapts to washing their hands before entering homes and stores. Waves hello replace handshakes. Yet, my husband and I are pretty much the only mask wearers in town, even after a local seamstress starts selling them. A motorcycle driver speeds by asking how I eat with that thing on my face. Multiple friends chastise me for wearing a mask. I live in the tension between wanting to adapt to the culture and knowing that masks are needed to stop this disease’s spread.

Airport petri dish

At the end of June, our organization abruptly informs us that they are recalling all of their international volunteers.

I’ve transitioned between Africa and the U.S. multiple times as my missionary work has moved me from Uganda to Zambia to Tanzania. I’m an experienced international traveler, but this time everything is different: A deadly virus is on the loose, and I’m on one of the first airplanes allowed to leave the country.


I’m an experienced international traveler, but this time is different: A deadly virus is on the loose, and I’m on one of the first airplanes allowed to leave the country.

At the check-in desk in Dar es Salaam, stickers on the floor mark off where people should stand to maintain proper social distancing. No one even pretends to care. Then, every other chair is cordoned off in the terminal, and people don’t breach the barriers. I can’t overlook the irony that travellers who were crowded together at the check-in counter are now maintaining social distance in the terminal, only to be close together on the airplane.

On board, I try not to stare at the flight attendants decked out in white, full-body suits, including hats, glasses, masks and gloves. I try not to dwell on the fact that my choice to travel puts them at risk.

The 16-hour flight from Doha to Dallas is always a marathon, but COVID-19 makes it infinitely worse. When I wake up starving after my third nap, I ask a passing flight attendant if I missed a meal. She tells me there will only be two meals to minimize human contact: one served after take-off, and one before landing. We are left to fend for ourselves for the 13 hours in between.

When my second meal finally comes, I attack it with a voracity born of both hunger and fear. I no longer linger and savor my meal. (I know many will scoff at the notion of savouring airline food, but believe me, after months of rice and beans, the delicacies onboard are truly remarkable.) Instead, I minimize my time spent mask-less by eating quickly.

After I’m done applying hand sanitizer for the 23rd time that day, I take a moment to observe my fellow plane passengers. There’s a hierarchy of COVID-19 apparel: At the top are those with N95s followed by face shields, surgical mask wearers (like me), cloth masks, and finally, the handkerchief tucked behind the ears. I notice a few people wearing gloves while others repeatedly rub their eyes. I think briefly back to a microbiology course and try to get the image of a petri dish out of my mind.

We land in Dallas and go through customs. No one even attempts social distancing, and masks are getting rarer and rarer. I see a table set up for voluntary temperature checks of airline workers, but mine seems to be of no concern. I’m never asked about my quarantine plans. As we wait to board our final plane in this epic 33-hour trek home, an airport employee speeds past on a cart. His hacking cough sprays droplets far and wide with no mask to hinder their journey.

Welcome home!

The last flight is uneventful. Touching down in Houston, my usual need to shower after travelling is intensified 100-fold. Did my mask, hand sanitizer, and other precautions protect me from the virus? I’ll know in 14 days.

The politicized disease

Within my first few days back home, I see a new phenomenon: the politicization of a disease. The most striking part of the COVID-19 response is the sheer number of voices shouting opinions and the inevitable exhaustion all the yelling has caused. I’m shocked to realize that there’s a debate over wearing masks even here. It turns out that the stubborn refusal to let anyone dictate what you wear is a conviction that crosses cultures.

Now that I don’t have to go to the river to fetch water or make a fire to cook my food, I have a lot of time on my hands. I spend quarantine monitoring the news and scrolling through Facebook, but wish I could be watching my seedlings grow instead.

As I near the end of quarantine, I face an important decision: What will my COVID-19 culture be?

Every time that I travel abroad, I try to let the new culture shape and guide me. I seek to learn from the strengths of each place I pass through without criticizing the weaknesses. However, what’s affected me most deeply on this journey was seeing the flight attendants approaching their day at work like an epidemiologist approaches an Ebola outbreak. I hated knowing my need to travel was putting others at risk.

So, in honour of them, I will explore yet another new culture by sinking into the CDC’s guidelines and seeking to follow their ways.


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Published in Volunteer Abroad
Alyson Rockhold

Alyson Rockhold has lived in the U.S., Haiti, Zambia and Tanzania. During her travels, she has volunteered at schools, hospitals and clinics. Her writing has been published in A Life Overseas, Velvet Ashes, Busted Halo and Red Letter Christians.

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