Out of Africa, away from the coronavirus

A Silverback Gorilla in the Virunga Mountains in northern Rwanda, seen just before the devastating effects of COVID-19 hit Rwanda.   Photo: David Walden

By Janet and David Walden

As we visited Rwanda in mid-March to see the renowned silverback gorillas, the reality of the coronavirus crisis suddenly hit home when guides distributed hand sanitizers and surgical masks and briefed us on keeping our distance. These measures were partly to protect the humans on the tour, but they were mostly to protect the gorillas.

Gorillas share 98 per cent of the genetic makeup of humans so they are susceptible to human-transmitted diseases like Ebola and COVID-19. In 2002, the sudden death of 5,000 western lowland gorillas in Congo was attributed to Ebola. Gorilla Doctors, an international non-governmental organization, is now working to promote the health and wellness of gorillas and people alike, including vaccinations against Ebola. With COVID-19, the precautions against the spread of the virus are the same for both humans and gorillas.

We had been travelling since early February in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. Our final stop was to be the highlight – a National Geographic tour to see the silverback gorillas and golden monkeys in Rwanda. From the capital Kigali, we travelled by jeep to the Virunga Mountains in the north, an area that became famous as the site of Dian Fossey’s ground breaking research and her memoir Gorillas in the Mist.

While we were following events in Canada and global responses to COVID-19 through various websites, the whole situation seemed a little surreal in sub-Saharan Africa where there had been only a handful of cases. Africa seemed to be one of the safest places as precautions were taken everywhere. At the airport, they took our temperature and interviewed us about our health. In the craft market, each stall made us use hand sanitizer before examining their wares. Every time we entered our hotel, we had to use hand sanitizer in full view of hotel security.

We began to realize the impact of COVID-19 when we learned that Kenya had closed its borders to nationals from France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Switzerland and that Uganda was contemplating similar action. As a result, there were only three people on our National Geographic tour, ourselves and one other Canadian. The tour was scheduled for eight days but was cancelled after three. Thankfully our guide was flexible, so he decided to let us do the gorilla trek and then return immediately to Kigali.

As it turned out, the decision to cancel the tour was the right one. Returning to Kigali, we immediately went to the office of our air carrier to find a lineup that went outside the door and were told they were suspending all flights effective the next day. No flights were available for another two days; we managed to book seats on other airlines from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Toronto and finally Ottawa.

We spent the two days waiting at the Hotel Mille des Collines, the hotel featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda, where there were only five or 10 guests in its 112 rooms as Kigali was in the process of shutting down. Even the approximately 30,000 motorcycle taxis in the city had been ordered off the road.

When we arrived at the airport on March 19, we were made to wait outside and then required to enter the terminal one at a time. We again had our temperatures taken and were screened by personnel in protective clothing. Despite the delay, it all seemed relatively straightforward but once airborne we discovered it had been a close call – ours was the last flight out before the Kigali Airport closed for 30 days. A few days later, Rwanda closed its borders, and the country went into complete lockdown.

We arrived in Ottawa after 30 hours of travel, exhausted but marvelling at our good luck – if we had tried to leave even a day later, the outcome would have been very different. At the time of writing, we are halfway through our self-isolation, feeling well and still coming to terms with the enormous impact of COVID-19 on both Canada and Africa.

Janet and David Walden live in the Glebe and hope to return to Africa to finish their trip – but not for a year or two.

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