NAIROBI – Tanzania’s president says God has eliminated COVID-19 in his country. His own church now begs to differ.
From the local Catholic authority warning this week of a new wave of coronavirus infections, to government institutions now requiring staffers to take precautions, populist President John Magufuli is being openly questioned as the African continent fights a strong resurgence in cases and deaths.
“We are not an island,” the Catholic secretariat of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference said in a widely shared statement this week. It urged followers, which include the president, to pray but also to adopt measures long practiced in the rest of the world, including avoiding public gatherings and close personal contact. The church's newspaper on Friday stressed in a large front-page headline: “There is corona.”
Tanzania has tried to be an island since April, when the East African country of 60 million people stopped updating its number of virus infections at 509 cases. Some health officials who questioned Magufuli’s stance that COVID-19 had been defeated were fired. The government promoted international tourism, eager to avoid the economic pain of neighbors who imposed lockdowns and curfews.
The president even praised Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for not wearing a face mask during a visit this month, calling it another sign that Tanzania is free of the virus.
But pandemic concerns have returned to the spotlight in Tanzania as the world focuses on the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines.
While other African countries seek millions of doses, Magufuli this week accused people who had been vaccinated overseas of bringing the virus back into Tanzania. He also questioned whether the vaccines work.
“If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccinations for AIDS would have been brought, tuberculosis would be a thing of the past, vaccines for malaria and cancer would have been found,“ he said on Wednesday.
“Be firm,” he added. “Vaccines are inappropriate.” He urged the health ministry not to rush into vaccinations without being satisfied about their safety. He offered no evidence for his claims.
African health officials were already worried about misinformation campaigns around COVID-19 vaccines as the first doses begin arriving on the continent of 1.3 billion people. Magufuli’s stance contrasts sharply with other African heads of state like President Wavel Ramkalawan of the Seychelles, who publicly received his first vaccine shot this month and urged citizens to do the same.
Asked about Tanzania on Thursday, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong told reporters that “if we do not fight this as a collective on the continent, we will be doomed.“
The World Health Organization’s Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters that “we are re-initiating communication at the highest level of leadership” in Tanzania and seeking the government’s collaboration “for the sake of the people of the country and neighboring countries, as well as for the sake of the world.”
She urged Tanzania to prepare for COVID-19 vaccines, and to share its virus data with the WHO.
Some Tanzanians, from longtime critics of the president to civil society leaders, have issued a new round of exasperated warnings against trying to ignore a global pandemic.
“Tanzanians have the right to vaccination against COVID,” opposition leader Zitto Kabwe tweeted after the president’s comments, saying a government that doesn’t protect its citizens lacks legitimacy. He and others had watched as people took few to no virus precautions during a deeply flawed election that returned Magufuli to power last year.
Others worry that Tanzania is hurting itself and its economy, warning of travel bans against its citizens, the loss of tourism revenue and dangerous health implications for years.
“By denying the pandemic, Tanzania may well have put itself at the back of a very long waiting list” for vaccines, Aidan Eyakuze, who leads the Twaweza East Africa initiative promoting government transparency, wrote this month for The Citizen local newspaper.
While Magufuli shows little sign of changing his stance on COVID-19, his own colleagues appear to be moving ahead to tackle infections.
Government institutions are issuing circulars requiring employees to cut down on meetings and communicate with management remotely. The finance minister has thanked God for protecting the country but now tells colleagues to listen to science as well.
The health ministry did not respond to a request for comment — but it recently raised prices for coronavirus testing. Many health workers remain hesitant to speak openly.
In Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, the president’s outlook had some supporters, or at least some concern about what it might mean if his COVID-19 denial is proven false.
“If the virus is present in our country, then we live in fear as this will mean that we stop working,” said Twalib Mwanjala, a motorcycle taxi driver. “Most Tanzanians are low-income earners.”
Another resident, Waziri Juma, added: “Coronavirus has not yet gotten into Tanzania, and we do not have corona. If the country had the virus, then the relevant ministry would issue a statement. But for now, people should stop being fearful and work hard.”
AP journalist Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed.