Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s blinkered insistence that there was no coronavirus problem in his country always appeared utterly implausible. As the disease spread with startling rapidity around the world, most African countries locked down and braced their health services for the worst. But for a year, Magufuli has promoted quack remedies, joked about the disease, and cast doubt on vaccines.
The government has neglected to track coronavirus cases, so there are no reliable figures on the virus’s spread or death toll. But the impact of Magufuli’s negligence is becoming clearer by the day. Reports suggest a surge in hospital patients suffering from respiratory distress. A recent spate of deaths attributed to pneumonia has been reported by citizens on social media and referenced in parliament by a governing MP.
Footage of maskless finance minister Philip Mpango in a coughing fit, surrounded by doctors and suffering from an unidentifed ailment, has raised eyebrows. The first vice-president of the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, died after his party said he had contracted Covid-19.
In February, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the situation in the country was “very concerning” and renewed his call for Tanzania to start reporting Covid-19 cases, share data, implement public health measures and prepare for vaccination.
WHO says it is yet to receive any information regarding the measures Tanzania is taking to respond to the pandemic, but that evidence of travelling Tanzanians testing positive abroad underscores the urgent need for action.
The severity of the situation appears to have belatedly dawned on the president, who in recent comments finally urged citizens to take precautions. Yet even those recommendations deviated from the best scientific advice – with the president advocating natural remedies such as steam inhalation, stressing the importance of locally-made face masks over imports and urging citizens to put their faith in God.
Like the WHO, other African countries are losing patience. Kenya has denied its athletes clearance to compete at the Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania over concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic. In a statement, Athletics Kenya urged “all athletes not to travel to Tanzania for the event”.
Tanzania risks increasing isolation and travel bans, putting its economy, including a valuable tourism sector, in danger. Countries are unlikely to risk hard-won progress by allowing travel to nations like Tanzania, which has no viable plan for prevention, let alone vaccination.
Neighbouring governments and regional bodies must coordinate their response and make it clear to Magufuli that he must change tack and embrace science. Unless that happens, millions of Africans in Tanzania and beyond will be at risk.