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It’s time for Africa to rein in Tanzania’s anti-vaxxer president

John Magufuli’s cavalier disregard of Covid’s impact in the great lakes region is fuelling conspiracies and endangering lives

‘John Magufuli needs to be challenged openly and directly.’ (Khalfan Said/AP)

What is wrong with President John Magufuli? Many people in and outside Tanzania are asking this question.

Magufuli claimed last year that God had eliminated Covid in the east African country of 60 million people, and has since made dismissing Covid vaccines his central priority – leaving many people asking: why?

In politics, there are generally two ways of making decisions. The first is evidence-based, weighing the pros and cons and choosing the best option; the greatest good for the greatest number.

The other is a populist approach, hell-bent against facts, science and logic. In a global pandemic where more than 2 million people have died, that is catastrophic.

The Tanzanian president seems to be taking populism to a whole new level.

Maybe he is under the influence of the same rabid anti-lockdown social media messaging that has persuaded some of my family and friends that Bill Gates or 5G have created the virus. But regardless of Magufuli’s cavalier motivation, these stances are a danger to public health. People are being exposed to suffering, and in some cases death.

Although the virus’s effect on Africa – including the numbers hospitalised or being tested – has not been quantified, the grim facts are crystal clear from within Magufuli’s own circle.

He knows Ghana’s former president, Jerry John Rawlings, has died from the virus. So too has former Congo-Brazzaville president Jacques Joaquim Yhombi-Opango. Last month four Zimbabwe cabinet ministers, including Sibusiso Moyo, the army general turned foreign minister who helped oust Robert Mugabe, died of Covid. In Malawi, four government officials, including two cabinet ministers, succumbed.

In Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), the prime minister, Ambrose Dlamini, fell to the virus. Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, has died, as has Libya’s former prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, and Somalia’s former prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. In Burundi, Tanzania’s neighbour, two former presidents – Pierre Nkurunziza and Pierre Buyoya – have died from Covid-19. The African Union secured 270m doses of Covid vaccine for member states to supplement their efforts, highlighting the strong resurgence in cases and deaths that is sweeping through the continent.

Yet Magufuli sticks bizarrely to asserting that Covid is a hoax. Instead of supporting lockdowns, and encouraging mask wearing as we prepare to mark the sombre anniversary of one year since the virus arrived in Africa, he has chosen to directly contradict local, regional and international efforts to defeat it.

According to Magufuli, who ordered officials to stop reporting Covid cases last May, when there were 509 infections and 21 deaths, Tanzania is Covid-free; an alleged status the country shares with North Korea and Turkmenistan. In a bizarre scene last month, Magufuli praised China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, for not wearing a face mask during a visit to the country, as though this were a good thing.

You really have to wonder, just what is wrong with Magufuli? In his crusade as an anti-vaxxer president, he has gone from repeatedly playing down the virus and mocking World Health Organization guidance to falsely claiming that Tanzania is Covid-free, and now to outrightly attacking his people for being vaccinated, fuelling denialism and conspiracies.

For a continent already battered by health and social issues, including hunger, malaria, displacement, unemployment, violence and insecurity, Magufuli’s unconscionable stance should compel us all to act.

Magufuli, who won another five-year term amid fraud allegations in 2020, is still fuelling anti-vaxxers as the pandemic and its new variants continue to play out. He needs to be challenged openly and directly. To look on indifferently exposes millions of people in Tanzania and across Africa’s great lakes region – as well as communities across the world – to this deadly and devastating virus.

  • Vava Tampa is a freelance writer, focusing on Africa’s great lakes, decolonisation and culture

This article was published by The Guardian.


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