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Africa’s COVID-19 denialist-in-chief

John Magufuli’s coronavirus denialism and refusal of vaccines have put millions of Tanzanians at risk.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli speaks in Dodoma, Tanzania, on Aug. 29, 2020. (ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP)

Is Tanzania’s President More Dangerous Than COVID-19?

President John Magufuli declared Tanzania free of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and has maintained that stance since; even as hospitals fill up and funerals proliferate, Magufuli and his government have continued to behave as if the country has been untouched by the pandemic.

Dubious data. Tanzania has recorded just 509 infections since the start of the pandemic and a mere 21 deaths, a number that is remarkably low compared with its neighbors’ and also likely inaccurate. The country stopped releasing any statistics in May and then in June 2020 declared the country COVID-free.

A look at its neighbors’ statistics shows what Tanzania’s true statistics could be: Kenya to the east has recorded nearly 103,000 infections and 1,795 deaths, while Zambia to the south has registered 69,347 cases and 951 deaths. Nearby Mauritius and Madagascar have shown that not even islands have been spared, making Tanzania’s statistics even more implausible.

On the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus dashboard, one of the most reliable sources for pandemic statistics on the continent, Tanzania is a blank column. Magufuli’s government has refused to release any further statistics on the pandemic, leaving citizens guessing at the extent of the public health crisis.

Grave evidence. Anecdotal evidence shows that Tanzanians have much to worry about. Tanzania’s Catholic Church spoke up this month, begging its followers to wear masks and protect themselves as the country fails to outline a strategy. The Tanzania Episcopal Conference told BBC Swahili that it had noticed a rise in funeral services in cities, carrying out daily masses.

Bloomberg reported that seven major hospitals in Dar es Salaam had to turn patients away because they were inundated in recent weeks. Their intensive care units were at capacity, while beds, oxygen, and respirators were all in short supply. An exasperated lawmaker in Magufuli’s party, Zacharia Issay, urged the government to break its silence on the pandemic, telling parliament: “I am tired of going to burials.”

Dangerous misinformation. When the government has broken its silence, it has arguably been as dangerous as the virus itself. Magufuli’s cabinet members have reportedly mocked mask-wearing and criticized neighboring countries for imposing lockdown measures.

In an embarrassing televised display this month, Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima gave a demonstration on how to mix a smoothie of natural ingredients to boost the immune system and avoid diseases like COVID-19. Wrapping a scarf over her head, she demonstrated how Tanzanians could use herbal steaming as a remedy for respiratory infections. She also told the press that the government had no plans to procure vaccines.

Stoking fears. The health minister is taking her cues from Magufuli, who has also created suspicion about vaccines. Positioning himself as a champion against Western imperialism, Magufuli implied that Tanzanians were being used as guinea pigs for dangerous, untested vaccines. Even after being chastised by the World Health Organization, Magufuli would not walk back his comments.

After eight months of insisting that there were no COVID-19 infections in his country—and after Denmark reported that two of its citizens tested positive for the variant after traveling to Tanzania—Magufuli finally acknowledged the virus’s ongoing presence this month. He blamed Tanzanians who traveled abroad for bringing the virus home.

God help us. Magufuli has repeatedly turned to religion rather than science, saying God will protect his country. It’s a refrain he has used before to suppress critics and walk back reproductive rights. Indeed, Magufuli has repeatedly relied on faith and fears of a Western devil to further entrench his increasingly authoritarian regime—replacing policy with a cult of personality. This time, however, his style of governance is likely costing thousands of Tanzanian lives.

This article was published by Foreign Policy.


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