Tanzania Shunned Lockdowns. Now It’s Rejecting Covid-19 Vaccines.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has rejected social-distancing measures and instead urged citizens to pray against a ‘satanic’ virus

President John Magufuli delivers a speech at his swearing-in ceremony in Dodoma, Tanzania, on Nov. 5. (State House/Zuma Press)


Tanzania’s government said it had no interest in accessing Covid-19 vaccines, cementing its status as an outlier in the world’s fight against the pandemic, as most other African countries scrambled to secure shots.


Tanzanian President John Magufuli has rejected lockdowns and other social-distancing measures and instead urged the country’s 60 million citizens to pray in churches and mosques against a “satanic” virus. In May, when it had confirmed 509 Covid-19 infections and 21 deaths, the government stopped reporting cases to the World Health Organization, after Mr. Magufuli insisted that Tanzania had conquered the pandemic and that test kits showing positive results were faulty.


This week, Tanzanian Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima said the country had no intention of importing Covid-19 vaccines, including free doses it could get from the global Covax initiative, which aims to supply shots to poor and middle-income countries.


“We are not yet satisfied that those vaccines have been clinically proven safe,” Dr. Gwajima said at a news conference, flanked by unmasked government health officials.


The only other African countries that have opted to forgo the free Covax vaccines are Burundi, Eritrea and the island state of Madagascar, according to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which manages the initiative along with the WHO. Other early Covid-19 deniers, such as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko —who last spring called the coronavirus a “psychosis” that could be fought with vodka, saunas and driving tractors—have since accepted vaccines.


During her conference, Dr. Gwajima, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in public health, displayed several trays with local herbs that she said could be used to make anti-coronavirus remedies. She urged Tanzanians to use steam, along with hand sanitizers and hand washing, to prevent the disease.


“It’s better we continue to use traditional remedies that have been with us for generations,” she said. “We urge our neighboring countries to learn from how we have handled Covid-19. We should be a good model to them.”


Tanzania’s neighbors tell a different story. Ugandan and Zambian officials say they are seeing large numbers of Tanzanian travelers testing positive when they try to cross the border. Rwanda is denying entry to Tanzanian truckers. Countries as far away as Denmark say they have detected the more-contagious coronavirus strain that first emerged in South Africa in test samples from people arriving from Tanzania.


Inside Tanzania, a recent spike in Covid-19-type symptoms and deaths has alarmed the Catholic Church, of which Mr. Magufuli is a member. In a Jan. 26 letter, the head of Tanzania’s Episcopal Conference, Bishop Gervas Nyaisonga, urged his fellow bishops to provide guidance to congregants in combating the disease.


“We should start taking immediate action at the earliest symptoms and avoiding crowded places,” he said. Other church leaders say they have been overwhelmed by an increase in requiem Masses to pray for the dead.


At a crowded rally last week, Mr. Magufuli told supporters not to accept being used as “guinea pigs” for Western vaccine makers. Without providing evidence, he claimed that some Tanzanians had returned with new coronavirus stains after traveling abroad to be vaccinated.


“Those vaccines don’t work; they are not good,” said Mr. Magufuli, who won a second term in disputed elections last year. “Tanzanians should be careful with these imported things.”


Mr. Magufuli’s remarks were countered hours later by the WHO, which urged Tanzania to prepare for a vaccination campaign, encourage mask wearing and share data about coronavirus infections.


Opposition politicians also demanded the government join other African nations in trying to secure vaccines for their citizens.


“What we need as a country are coronavirus vaccines, not reckless talk,” said Zitto Kabwe, head of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency party. “This kind of talk has already led to massive deaths.”


This article was published by The Wall Street Journal.

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