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Tanzania's COVID-19 denial risks pulling Africa back

February 9, 2021

As President John Magufuli downplays the severity of the coronavirus, Tanzanians are waking up to the reality that the virus is spreading. Health experts now fear Tanzania's attitude could endanger the rest of Africa.

Women in Tanzania wearing face masks
Tanzania did not order a total lockdown while many other African countries closed their borders due to COVID-19Image: DW/S. Khamis

Until recently, Tanzania gave the impression that the coronavirus pandemic — which has brought the world to a standstill — was under control.

President John Magufuli assured the 58 million inhabitants of the East African nation that they need not worry about observing COVID-19 preventative measures.

He also vowed last year that his country would never face curfews or lockdowns that had been introduced in neighboring Kenya and Uganda.

On March 16, 2020, Tanzania's health ministry announced the country's first confirmed case of the coronavirus.

"When the cases were being reported, President Magufuli was out questioning the standard of the lab equipment," Thabit Jacob, a political analyst at Roskilde University, told DW. 

"He said the testing kits were made by western countries and were programmed to give many positive results." 

However, the Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said they had found no fault with Tanzania's testing procedure.

Tanzania's President John Pombe Magufuli
President John Magufuli has doubled down on the coronavirus pandemic since his reelection in October 2020Image: Tanzania Presidential Press Service

Magufuli claimed that he had secretly sent several samples to the national laboratory for testing. The results: A papaya fruit, quail, and a goat tested positive, the president said, as the crowd burst into laughter.

In May 2020, he declared that through prayer, Tanzania had defeated the coronavirus.

The East African nation quickly embraced herbal medicine — particularly inhaling steam from a mixture of traditional herbs, as a therapy against the virus.

"Herbal medicine will be able to defeat the coronavirus," Obeid Maiko, a resident of Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, said.

"Since way back, African societies have used this kind of medicine, and we are still surviving," Maiko told DW.

The 25-year-old said the current vaccines in the market have not been able to suppress the virus, which led to a belief in herbal remedies.

'Is COVID in Tanzania or not?'

Since December 2020, Tanzanians have grown warier about the pandemic. With rising deaths attributed to "acute pneumonia," many residents have abandoned carelessness and are taking the virus seriously.

Zanzibar's First Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad was taken ill by the virus, according to his party, ACT Wazalendo, at the end of January. His wife and aides were also infected.

That rare admission sent shockwaves across the country, which last gave official statistics for COVID-19 in April 2020.

Tanzania's ACT Wazalendo leader, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad
Zanzibar's First Vice President Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad became one of the top Tanzanian officials to admit he had contracted COVID-19Image: Ericky Boniphace/DW

"The situation is not very good," Mussa Mussa, a resident of Arusha, said. "The government is not saying directly about the corona situation in Tanzania. We are wondering whether we have the virus with us or not," Mussa told DW in an interview.

"Last week, the minister of health [Dorothy Gwajima] told us to use traditional ways to protect ourselves. A few weeks ago, the president told us that some people brought corona in this country, so we are wondering, is corona in Tanzania or not?"

In January, two cases of the new South African strain — thought to be more contagious — were discovered in air travelers returning from Tanzania by Denmark's Statens Serum Institut (SSI), which specializes in infectious diseases.

"The first thing I do is to avoid unnecessary crowds," Anna, who resides in Dar es Salaam, said.

"If I have to go, I keep my distance to avoid direct contact with people," adding that she washes her hands and sanitizes herself more often than before.

Meanwhile, Tanzania's Roman Catholic Church took the plunge and went against the government's code of silence by warning its adherents to protect themselves.

"Our country is not an island. We have every reason to take precautions and pray to God so that we can move unscathed in this pandemic," a letter addressed to archbishops and retired bishops stated.

Impact of Tanzania's non-cooperation

Tanzania's refusal to provide COVID-19 data and procure vaccines could endanger the whole continent, according to Africa CDC.

"We don't truly understand how [the] COVID-19 pandemic will evolve. Not cooperating will make it dangerous. This virus has no borders," Africa CDC director, John Nkengasong, said during an online media briefing.

Nkengasong urged Magufuli's government to review their policy on dealing with COVID-19 and join the African Union in fighting the pandemic.

Passengers in Dar es Salaam wearing face masks inside a mini van.
More Tanzanians are now wearing face masks as the country comes to terms with the coronavirusImage: DW/S. Khamis

"He [President Magufuli] denied the pandemic even before it got to Tanzania in the first place," political analyst Thabit Jacob said. "With all the news about vaccines causing trouble in different corners of the world, this is going to fuel his skepticism even further."

South Africa on Sunday announced that they were halting their planned vaccination rollout of Oxford's-produced AstraZeneca vaccine after a study revealed that the shot was not strong enough to protect against the new variant found there.

Tanzania, Burundi not part of Africa vaccine program

In February, the World Health Organization said it planned to start dispatching around 90 million COVID-19 vaccines to Africa. But two countries, Tanzania and Burundi, were excluded from the program.

While Tanzania has been reluctant to accept vaccines, Burundi said it was focusing on prevention measures and did not see the need yet to vaccinate its nearly 12 million citizens, according to local media.

Supporters of Tanzania's Presidentn John Magufuli
During the 2020 Tanzania political campaigns and elections, there was little regard for COVID protocolsImage: Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images

Cape Verde, Rwanda, South, and Tunisia have been allocated around 320,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the WHO said in a statement.

The Africa CDC said 60% of Africans need to receive a form of vaccination for the continent to acquire herd immunity — that is when enough people become immune to a virus making it less likely to be transmitted within the community.

Currently more than 3.5 million people in Africa have contracted the virus and around 90,000 have died from it.

Tanzania in the maelstrom of the pandemic