MS Risk Blog

Tanzania’s Hidden COVID-19 Epidemic

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Tanzania’s former President John Magufuli earned the title of one of the most prominent COVID-19 sceptics amongst world leaders. The country had stopped reporting case and death statistics in May 2020. The registers number on the World Health Organisation’s Covid dashboard remain at 509 cases and 21 deaths. Magufuli dismissed containment measures such as masks and social distancing, and even refused to order vaccinations for his citizens, therefore little is known about the state of the virus within Tanzania.

Magufuli passed away on the 17th March 2021, after speculations about his wellbeing due to his disappearance from the public view on the 27th February. The news was broken by Tanzania’s Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan on state television.  His administration had not spoken on his health and whereabouts until then, and merely questioning or spreading rumours about the president’s condition resulted in arrest. The government was clearly trying to buy time while the president was very ill or already dead. Magufuli’s passing was attributed to “heart problems” but many still suspect that he succumbed to COVID-19.

Conspiracy Theories

When the country recorded its first case, some containment measures were taken such as closing schools, limiting public gatherings, even encouraging people not to travel within or outside Dar es Salaam and other regions. However, the approach since then has been completely different.

In May 2020, Magufuli triggered conspiracy theories in an effort to investigate the quality of testing kits and to question the amount of positive cases in the country. He sent non-human samples from fruit and animals to the country’s main lab which came back positive for COVID-19. When sharing the results with the nation, the president stated that this likely meant some individuals were being tested positive when in fact they were not infected with coronavirus – de-emphasising COVID-19’s risks.

This shift in public health messaging triggered its neighbour Zambia to shut its borders with the country due to apprehension over Tanzania’s lack of COVID-19 response. Magufuli’s leadership style put not only many Tanzanians in danger, but the lack of containment was also harming the region’s chances of stopping its spread.

After the shift in messaging and the abandonment of precautions, many businesses soon reopened and by June people had returned to normalcy. The president did not fear this virus, and this was reflected in society.

In January 2021, Magufuli announced the country would not be ordering vaccines, as they “are not good, if they were, then the white man would have brought vaccines for HIV/AIDS.” He also added that his country would not be guinea pigs in vaccination trials. President Magufuli presented himself as an African nationalist waging war against foreign powers. He used the disease as warfare while hinting at the virus as a western plot:

“So many times, I have insisted that not everything that you are given is good. There could be people being used, that equipment could be used… but it could also be sabotage because this is warfare,”

Science Vs. Religion

Magufuli was a former chemistry and math teacher, and had a doctorate in chemistry so with his scientific background, his decision to rely on faith and herbal medication rather than evidence was a shock to many of his neighbours and the international community.

He urged citizens to pray to their individual gods, in mosques and churches, so that God will hear them. Magufuli had also backed traditional medication, including steam inhalation to fight the virus, despite the WHO saying there is no evidence that these treatments work. Herbal remedies are a common feature in many African nations with the WHO showing that 80% of Africans use them. He had even ordered a planeload of herbal potions that were popularised in Madagascar. Magufuli clearly viewed African nations as allies, as opposed to the West and preferred to deal with them when seeking out medical remedies.

A surprise change in messaging came in mid-February shortly after the death of the senior Tanzanian politician paired with the more general deadly resurgence of the infection which had put pressure on the government to provide clearer guidelines for the pandemic. This revelation added to concerns of a hidden epidemic within Tanzania despite the country’s insistence of having had no local transmissions. Magufuli said the government had not forbidden the wearing of masks and were not discouraging people to do so if they wanted to. However, the conspiracy theories did not stop there as he was still sceptical of the masks Tanzanians should wear: “we have to be careful about which masks we wear” and encouraging people to either make their own masks or use masks that were produced locally.”

Impact on the Wider Region 

Tanzania’s refusal to provide COVID-19 data to the WHO and the refusal to secure vaccines puts the whole continent in danger as many countries share porous borders. It is difficult to predict the future trajectory of the virus and refusal to cooperate endangers everyone. So, as long as there are cases of coronavirus in Tanzania, it will be extremely difficult for neighbouring countries to be free of the virus.

President Magufuli was clearly denying the pandemic even before it got to Tanzania. Coupled with the current news about numerous countries halting the rollout of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, this is going to fuel further scepticism in the country. Tanzanians in border communities may have to resort to crossing over to neighbouring Rwanda, Malawi or Kenya to access vaccination programmes – increasing the risk of the spread of the virus.

Furthermore, with the lack of disease surveillance within Tanzania there is the risk of new variants emerging within the country, which tend to emerge due to uncontrolled spread. A new variant emerging from Tanzania could easily endanger the whole region and invalidate vaccines that may not be effective against a new variant. Tanzania’s current approach will make it that much harder for normality to return to the region as long as COVID-19 is not controlled and or subjected to surveillance.

Tanzania’s Future

The new president of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was sworn in on 19 March and she is the first female head of state in the country. There has been general debate of whether Hassan will continue Magufuli’s legacy or change course.

Apart from dealing with Tanzania’s hidden epidemic, she will be faced with the task of healing the country that became so polarised under Magufuli’s rule. Speaking on the issue of polarity within the country as well as the uncertainty that developed after Magufuli’s disappearance, Hassan said: “This is a time to bury our differences, and be one as a nation…This is not a time for finger pointing, but it is a time to hold hands and move forward together.”

She is described as a ‘soft-spoken consensus builder’, which is a stark contrast from Magufuli who earned the label “Bulldozer” for pushing through policies despite opposition. Hassan speaks fondly of Magufuli, stating that, “He taught me a lot, he was my mentor and prepared me sufficiently.” She also assured the citizens of Tanzania that all is well and that nothing will change within the country, also stating that she will continue to lead the nation in the same way as Magufuli had done.

President Hassan has not yet mentioned her plans for dealing with the pandemic. However, her silence is understandable: the former president, after all, was a genuinely famous leader, despite his landslide election victory last autumn being marred by accusations of voter fraud. Disavowing his policies quickly might be politically risky for Hassan.

The case of Magufuli and Tanzania may serve as a cautionary tale to other COVID-19 sceptics. The pandemic he persistently refuted outlived him and turned his presidency into a harsh example for the region and the continent. In his six years as president, the country became increasingly polarised through his treatment of the opposition, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the country also became increasingly isolated internationally.

Hassan’s international exposure could provide her with the kind of worldview needed to re-establish Tanzania’s diplomatic status. She talked about the importance of burying differences and showing unity as a country in her inaugural address on 19th March. Her forthrightness and rationality may be critical in pushing the country forward. She would need to act quickly to shift the country’s stance on COVID-19 and reach out to the opposition and other stakeholders in order to foster a national dialogue that is more inclusive.