Since John Magufuli took office in 2015, international rights groups have decried Tanzania’s growing repression of the media. The president came to power riding a wave of popular support in a country bogged down by excess and crippling graft. But celebrations were short-lived as the new administration quickly showed its disdain for a free and independent press. Newspapers were shut down, laws curbing digital media spaces were introduced, so too was legislation preventing the collection of data without official authorisation.
Journalists have since been routinely harassed, detained and questioned without charge. This was brought to the world’s attention in September 2019, when Erick Kabendera, a high-profile investigative reporter who’s written for The Economist and The Guardian, was detained on trumped up citizenship charges, which quickly turned to money laundering and tax evasion, disqualifying him for bail.
This would be worrying at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. The world is still trying to figure out how best to deal with covid-19, of which relatively little is still known. One thing we do know is that transparency will be crucial in our fight against it. Tragically, the struggle against fake news is being lost in many parts of the world. Misinformation has grown to such an extent that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled it an “infodemic”.
The reason this is so important is because combatting an infectious disease requires everyone to do their bit. Sylvie Briand, Director of Infectious Hazards Management at WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme and architect of WHO’s strategy to counter the infodemic laid bare the risks of not telling the truth. “What is at stake during an outbreak is making sure people do the right thing to control the disease or to mitigate its impact” she said. “So it is not only information to make sure people are informed; it is also making sure people are informed to act appropriately”.
Since Tanzania’s first positive case of covid-19 was reported in mid-March, the government has elected to diverge from internationally observed policies such as a country-wide lockdown or adhere to strict social distancing. The damage to businesses would be far too grave, president insisted. Magufuli, who has a PhD in chemistry, called the virus the “devil”, and urged people to pray it away. “It cannot live in the body of Christ. It will burn instantly”, he told a church congregation.
But it would be unfair to say the government has not taken any measures at all. Mass gatherings, such as weddings and funerals were banned, and schools and colleges were closed. Public spaces such a markets, while permitted to remain open, were disinfected with chlorine and diluted bleach (though this has since been stopped). The world’s shared experience of covid-19 has demonstrated that international comparisons are often fruitless. What works for one country will not necessarily work for another.
And while government officials have hailed this laissez-faire approach a success, there is mounting evidence to suggest realities on the ground are quite different. Online videos of secret nighttime burials point to a death toll far higher than the 17 officially recognised by the government. Public updates are sporadic and misleading. The president has even started questioning the veracity of test results coming out of the national laboratory. A bizarre turn of events in which vehicle oil, a papaya and a goat were apparently tested for covid-19 led the president to suspend the lab’s head, accusing him of sabotage. He has since opined that people who had previously tested positive probably don’t have the virus at all.
Before covid-19 struck, Magufuli’s blatant disregard for the truth was already having worrying implications for the state of Tanzanian democracy. After an electoral victory for the opposition was annulled in 2015 in Zanzibar, Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island region, people were furious. The situation threatens to boil over this coming October when elections are scheduled there, if they go ahead at all. But never before have silence and deceit imperilled public health like this.
The international community must do more to hold the government to account where the public cannot. WHO, an institution that appears to have vaccinated itself against confrontation, needs to realise that the consequences of what is happening in Tanzania stretch far beyond its borders. Regional partners within the East African Community need to take action against its inaction. They have far more at stake here than anyone else. If more is not done, covid-19 will not just kill thousands of Tanzanians. It will kill what little remains of the country’s fledgling democracy.