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Opinion: Magufuli's COVID-19 apathy is a recipe for disaster

Isaac Mugabi
May 4, 2020

Tanzanian President John Magufuli's latest attack on the country's laboratory technicians will further hamper efforts to fight COVID-19 if he is not reined in, writes DW's Isaac Mugabi. It's time for the region to act.

Tansania Dar es Salaam Coronavirus
Image: DW/E. Boniphace

As countries battle the coronavirus following guidelines set up by the World Health Organization (WHO), Tanzanian President John Magufuli is holding his people at ransom with his unorthodox ways of protecting themselves against the virus.

The latest is that he has now ordered an investigation into the national laboratory and accused it of obtaining non-human samples from pawpaw, a sheep, and a goat and giving them human names.

With 480 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths, Tanzania now has the highest number of cases in the region, and this figure is expected to rise. In a country where authorities rarely release test results, it could become the epicenter of the virus.

Read more: COVID-19: Africa's clerics send mixed messages to followers

Three lawmakers, including the justice minister, have already died from suspected coronavirus. No autopsy reports have been made public, if at all they were carried out, raising concerns that the virus might have struck at the heart of Magufuli's government.

Isaac Mugabi is an editor for DW's English for Africa
Isaac Mugabi is an editor for DW's English for AfricaImage: DW/Abu Bakarr Jalloh

The country's leading opposition party, Chadema, has called for the suspension and urged its MPs to self-isolate for at least two weeks. But can taking on the bull (Magufuli) by its horns change things inside Tanzania?

Since the outbreak of the virus, Magufuli has drawn criticism for not imposing a lockdown and instead urging people to pray. Videos of Tanzanians enjoying themselves in bars and restaurants have been circulating on social media platforms — raising fears that the country could be sitting on a time bomb.

Ever since, Magufuli has downplayed the severity of the virus and has urged businesses and places of worship to remain open, saying that the economy would otherwise collapse. But perhaps his most unorthodox suggestion to avoid contracting the virus came when he urged people to steam with local herbs.

Read more: Opinion: Africa's COVID-19 lockdown — a death trap of another kind for the poor

Tanzanian President John Magufuli
President John Magufuli has claimed positive coronavirus results have been obtained on samples taken from a goat Image: picture-alliance/AA/B. E. Gurun

Madagascar 'vaccine'

On Sunday, Magufuli said he would send a plane to Madagascar to bring in medicine to treat the coronavirus. Dubbed Covid-organics, the drink is derived from Artemisia — an anti-malaria plant mixed with indigenous herbs. Madagascar has already made deliveries of its purported medicine to Guinea Conakry and Equatorial Guinea.

Despite not being approved by the WHO, Magufuli believes it is the right treatment against COVID-19, instead of the universally recommended guidelines such as social distancing and washing hands regularly.

He also took a swipe at imported test kits, saying that they are not effective but rather another form of imperialism.

Magufuli's stubbornness to embrace WHO guidelines further demonstrate his autocratic leadership style, and any attempts by right-thinking citizens to criticize him could land them in jail.

His handling of the pandemic should create a window of opportunity for opposition groups to unseat him in general elections later this year, which is quite unlikely since they have never won any election.

Read more: Coronavirus in Africa: How deadly could COVID-19 become?EAC silent

A Tanzanian cartoonist inspires environmental change

Until now, leaders from the East African Community (EAC) have remained tight-lipped about Magufuli's disingenuous behavior, which also puts the lives of their citizens in danger.

So far, most of the new cases that both Rwandan and Uganda have registered are those of Tanzanian truck drivers entering their territories. Authorities have not been able to track down their contacts for testing, which further jeopardizes the chances of fighting COVID-19.

Leadership comes with responsibility. But Magufuli's effrontery is now putting the whole region at risk. It is high time EAC leaders confronted him and worked together for the sake of their people to make cross-border movements safer for everyone.

But who will rein in Magufuli who has retreated to his country home in Chato, northwestern Tanzania, and is now bulldozing the whole country at will? It is high time that regional leaders — Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, and Rwanda's Paul Kagame — spoke with one voice to end Magufuli's unbecoming behavior and attitude towards COVID-19.

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