Every Sunday John Magufuli visits the local church in his hometown of Chato in Tanzania’s northwestern region.
After attending mass, he passes by the fish market on the shores of Lake Victoria and continues with business as usual in the midst of a global health crisis.
While surrounding countries moved quickly to implement preventative measures against Covid-19, Tanzania’s president has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic. No lockdown has been implemented and bars, restaurants and religious buildings remain open while Magufuli claims that prayer will protect against the deadly virus.
The lack of a response from the government has stoked fears that large swathes of the population have already been infected. The US Embassy warned that “despite limited official reports, all evidence points to exponential growth of the epidemic in Dar es Salaam and other locations in Tanzania.”
Opposition MP Zitto Kabwe goes further. The leader of ACT-Wazalendo party claims that the number of infections is as much as seven times higher than the official figure of around 500, which would place Tanzania among sub-Saharan Africa’s most affected countries at the time of writing. Despite this, just 21 deaths have been recorded.
The possibility of an uncontrolled health crisis is a cause for concern among regional leaders. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga, have urged Magufuli to change his approach, fearing that the unabated spread of the virus in Tanzania will eventually threaten their own ability to reopen borders.
Reportedly ignoring their calls, Tanzania’s president boycotted an East African Community (EAC) meeting to discuss Covid-19 on 12 May.
Zambia and Kenya have already closed their borders with Tanzania, fearing overlapping transmission, and its other neighbours could well follow suit.
Controversy over infection rate
In early May the president undermined Tanzania’s scientific community with a bizarre claim. Under his instructions the security forces submitted samples of goat and papaya to the national laboratory which subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. This, he asserted, showed that the number of people testing positive for the virus was higher than it should be.
At the time of writing in mid-May, only around 650 tests had been conducted since the first case was announced on 16 March, 73% of which were positive – one of the highest rates in Africa.
Opposition politicians and activists have accused the government of concealing the true number of deaths linked to Covid-19 by burying deceased patients at night in Dar es Salaam and Arusha. The last update from the government was April 29, reinforcing fears that it is hiding the true scale of infections.
“The death rates are very high, the infection rates are very high and the government is not reporting what is happening,” says Kabwe.
The government’s chief spokesman, Hassan Abbas, told African Business that the allegations of night time burials were “nonsensical” and denied the existence of unreported cases.
Yet suspicious deaths are more widespread than just clandestine burials.
Opposition parties are boycotting parliament following the deaths of three lawmakers who had reported Covid-19 symptoms. The government refuses to launch an inquiry and maintains the deaths were not suspicious.
Claims by the media that the deaths were Covid-19 related or that the government has failed in its duties to protect its citizens have been met with backlash. Five media outlets have paid fines and two more have been suspended for questioning the government’s approach, says Roland Ebole, Tanzania researcher at Amnesty International.
“If journalists report on anything to do with Covid-19, whether it’s government measures or the number of cases, they have to get this information from government sources,” says Ebole. “Those that upset the authorities have either been suspended or fined.”
Concerns for the economy
Alongside Tanzania’s disregard for global best practice in fighting Covid-19, the government has done little to support an economy which is reeling from the collapse of the tourist industry.
Although there is currently no lockdown in Tanzania, the inward flow of tourists has ceased and many of the country’s hotels are closed. The sector usually accounts for around a quarter of foreign exchange earnings, and around 1.5m tourists visited the country in 2018.
Critics fear that mounting evidence of unreported cases will dissuade tourists from returning to Tanzania, dealing an enduring economic blow long after the world returns to normal. Kenya, Tanzania’s main regional competitor for tourism, could attract more of East Africa’s post-lockdown tourists if its stricter handling of the pandemic proves a success.
Unlike its neighbours, Tanzania has yet to draw on the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility (RCF), which offers concessional finance without conditionality to low-income countries.
IMF Tanzania representative Jens Reinke told African Business that “the government doesn’t see the crisis as that big an issue”. The Fund can make a disbursement within three weeks of the finished application, Reinke says.
Tanzania can access up to 397.8m of its special drawing rights (SDRs), a unit of account used by the IMF which corresponds to the number of shares held in the global lender by each country. Central banks can use SDRs as supplementary foreign exchange reserves to secure dollars during a time of crisis. Kenya has accessed $739m, equivalent to 100% of its 542.8m SDRs.
“Other countries came up with economic stimulus packages, Tanzania has not. It means that Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda will emerge faster than Tanzania,” says opposition MP Kabwe.
The fund predicts that the economy will grow by 2% this year, down from 6.3% in 2019. Business leaders have requested a bailout from the government amid sharply declining revenues. The Tanzania Private Sector Foundation said it was arranging loan holidays with the Bank of Tanzania to avoid mass defaulting and is preparing a special fund to support companies.
Meanwhile, the government says it has concluded an economic assessment and is working on potential policy responses. The central bank has lowered the statutory minimum reserves requirements for commercial banks to 6% from 7% and cut its discount rate for banks in a bid to boost liquidity.
How will this affect October elections?
It remains to be seen whether Magufuli’s bizarre response to Covid-19 will help or hinder his reelection campaign as the country lurches towards a national vote in October.
On the one hand, his populist policy to keep places of worship open will appeal to many citizens in a very religious society.
Coming to power on the back of an anti-corruption and nationalist platform, his support base is mainly among the rural poor.
Yet despite all his best efforts to control the media narrative, the reports of night burials published on international news sites have started to dent his image.
“The crisis will define his legacy,” says Kabwe. “I’m very sure that Tanzanians will never forgive him for the lack of leadership during this crisis… Now, on the eve of the election, people are starting to see things they have never seen before like night burials.”
The opposition, however, lacks a prominent figure to challenge his reelection bid. Kabwe has emerged as a leading critic during the crisis, yet his ACT-Wazalendo party holds just one seat in Tanzania’s parliament.
Another opposition party, Chadema, holds 62 seats compared to 287 by the ruling party. Current chairman Freeman Mbowe has a following with urban Tanzanians but lacks broader support.
The party’s central figure Tundu Lissu has been in voluntary exile in Belgium since 2017 after he was shot multiple times in Dodoma while waiting in a parked car outside parliament. Opposition figures had hoped that Lissu would return to contest the election as one of the only politicians with far-reaching appeal.
The former lawyer told African Business that he was planning to return once his safety was assured.
“That’s to say, if my security is not assured it’ll not be easy for me to return home to fight the elections. I want to fight Magufuli through democratic means. I can do so only if I’m alive.”
This article was published by African Business.