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Tanzania: Doctors urge Magufuli’s government to take Covid seriously

Two weeks ago, *Emmanuel Abdi a resident in Kibamba in the outskirts of the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, lost his father.

His family says his death was caused by the coronavirus. Before his death, Abdi’s father experienced chest pains, a lung infection and for a long time he has been battling tuberculosis.

He says: “My father didn’t get any medical attention. We are worried with the situation, that’s why we want to protect ourselves from this dangerous pandemic.”

Abdi says his father did not get any medical attention because the government stopped attending to people believed to have Covid-19, after authorities said the country was free from the pandemic in June 2020 after three days of prayers. His family is now in isolation at home.

President John Magufuli has denied that Covid-19 is a problem and cast doubts on the efficacy of vaccines. His government has proposed the use of alternative therapies to deal with cases of illness.

On the front line

"We are pressured by the authorities not to attend to people who have coronavirus symptoms rather than treating them for pneumonia and lung infections."

A doctor at Muhimbili National Hospital talks to The Africa Report on a condition of anonymity due to the politicisation of the pandemic and the government’s crackdown on expressions of differing points of view – about the pressures of being on the front lines in the fight against Covid-19 in Tanzania.

The doctor says: “We are pressured by the authorities not to attend to people who have coronavirus symptoms rather than treating them for pneumonia and lung infections. As doctors, we are in danger because we are not even getting personal protective equipment. The government has to change its perception and take this pandemic seriously.”

For its part, the government says that it is not stopping doctors from treating Covid-19 patients.

On 2 February, health ministry permanent secretary Abel Makubi refuted claims that doctors are refusing to attend patients suspected to have any respiratory disease, whether it is pneumonia, lung infections or coronavirus.

“Doctors have their […] obligations, which is to attend patients. I haven’t received any complaints that they are not attending patients,” he told the national radio station TBC Taifa.

What do the numbers say?

A regional comparison shows how Tanzania’s neighbours are coping and what could be happening in the absence of public statistics.

Tanzania stopped publishing Covid-19 statistics in May 2020. At that time, the government recorded 509 cases and 21 deaths.

  • As of 9 February, Kenya had recorded 102,048 cases with 1,789 deaths.

  • Rwanda recorded 16,811 Covid-19 cases and 226 deaths.

  • Uganda announced 39,883 cases and 327 deaths.

Not keeping count

Abdi is one of many Tanzanians who have recently lost a loved one due to what is believed to be the coronavirus. Pictures of deceased people, some of them current and former high-ranking government officials, are being regularly shared online.

  • Former deputy finance minister Gregory Teu died a few hours after being admitted to Arusha Hospital on 25 January. Reports indicate he suddenly felt unwell when in a meeting.

  • Another prominent personality, who died recently under similar circumstances is Julius Sang’udi, a deputy commissioner of prisons.

Meanwhile, the opposition party ACT Wazalando announced on 31 January that the first vice-president of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad was hospitalised at Mnazi Mmoja Hospital after he and his wife alongside his several aides tested positive for the coronavirus.

People’s fears

Abdi’s father’s death came at a time when health experts warn that Dar es Salaam is a hotspot of new infections.

While the government is in denial, many Tanzanians in the streets of Dar es Salaam and across the country think that coronavirus exists in Tanzania and they are very concerned about it.

“I am worried and I don’t believe the government may calm the situation, it’s like we live in the jungle while the whole world is taking serious measures,” says a resident in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

People, especially in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, have started taking precautions by wearing masks, frequently washing their hands and using sanitiser.

Government’s mixed messages

"Like President Magufuli, health minister Dorothy Gwajima regularly promotes the use of local herbs to fight the coronavirus."

The government sends out mixed messages about Covid-19, creating confusion. In June, President Magufuli said there was no coronavirus in Tanzania.

Government spokesman Hassan Abbas recently pushed backed against claims that the government is denying the seriousness of the problem: “Since last year, the government has put in place measures to contain the spread of this virus. What we insist [on] is that we cannot impose lockdown for the sake of our economy.”

Like President Magufuli, health minister Dorothy Gwajima regularly promotes the use of local herbs to fight the coronavirus.

“Local herbs have been approved by scientists in our country to cure various infections,” Gwajima claimed without providing evidence.

She also said that the government has no plan to import Covid-19 vaccines developed by other countries.

  • Last year, Magufuli sacked health minister Faustine Ndugulile shortly after saying in parliament that Tanzania has to follow guidelines that have been put in place by scientists.

  • Joseph Msukuma, an MP for Geita Rural, has regularly appeared on local media promoting steam inhalation as a Covid-19 treatment.

On the other hand, opposition politician Zitto Kabwe argues the government is playing a dangerous game: “The problem is that they concentrate much on mega-projects, so they believe that if they take this pandemic seriously, all resources will be on coronavirus. But the situation is that people are dying and our economy is suffering.”

Meanwhile, reports say some government institutions like the medical store department have started taking precautions by encouraging workers to wear masks and wash their hands.

Magufuli in the spotlight

President Magufuli claimed without any evidence that vaccinations are dangerous and instead urged Tanzanians to protect themselves from the deadly disease by using measures including steam inhalation.

“Vaccinations are dangerous. If white people were able to come up with vaccinations, a vaccination for AIDS would have been found. A vaccination for tuberculosis could have eliminated it by now. A malaria vaccine would have been found. A vaccination for cancer would have been found by now,” said Magufuli.

Magufuli also claimed, without providing evidence, that there are some Tanzanians who went abroad to be vaccinated have returned with a strange coronavirus.

The voice of the men and women of god

The President’s statement came just a day after the influential Catholic Church issued an alert over the increased number of suspected Covid-19 infections.

In a pastoral letter addressed to church leaders, the president of the Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Gervas Nyaisonga, warned of a new wave of infections and urged believers to observe health guidelines.

Father Charles Kitima told BBC Swahili that the Catholic Church had noticed an unusually sharp increase in the number of funeral services being held: “Usually there would be one or two requiem masses per week in urban parishes, but now we are conducting masses daily.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church head Fredrick Onael Shoo also wrote a letter to tell followers to take necessary precautions to fight the virus.

Late arrival

A priest in the southern part of Tanzania tells The Africa Report on the condition of anonymity that the church statement came too late. “Since the authorities stopped talking about the pandemic, and therefore people were relaxed and stopped to observe guidelines like putting on a mask, washing hands with soap and social distancing issued by health experts.”

A priest from Kitaya, a border village between Tanzania and Mozambique, says: “On our side we encourage people to observe social distance and wear masks while attending church services.”

Another Anglican priest, who did not want to be named, says Magufuli has not provided the necessary leadership in dealing with coronavirus. “He continues to show his reckless behaviour. He claims to be caring for Tanzanians, but the fact is he is not for Tanzanians. We as religious leaders ask our people to opt for science-based solutions,” says the priest from Dodoma.

What is the WHO saying?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti says WHO is engaging with the authorities in Tanzania.

The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom, has also urged the Tanzanian authorities to start sharing data on the coronavirus in Tanzania.

Bottom line

Many Tanzanians argue that there is no reason why the country would be spared from the virus when others in the region have been hit hard, even when deploying lockdowns and other measures. The government’s policy is to keep the population in the dark about the Covid-19 threat, but people are dying and their families are concerned about the risks to their health.

*Name changed for security reasons

This article was published by The Africa Report.


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