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Tanzanian doctors sound alarm over hidden coronavirus cases

The Tanzanian government’s tepid response to COVID-19 and seeming lack of transparency over coronavirus cases is fuelling concern that it is covering up the true extent of the pandemic, according to doctors and health experts in the East African country.

The New Humanitarian spoke to five Tanzania-based doctors and medical specialists about the response, either by telephone or email. All only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, such was their fear of reprisals from a government whose human rights record has worsened in recent years.

“There is no information,” said one specialist, a health adviser to the government in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. “This leads to a tremendous amount of rumours and fears among the population ­– it’s disastrous for this epidemic.”

The adviser, a consultant who is on several working groups in the Ministry of Health, said the outbreak was being treated as “a security issue, not a public health issue”, meaning the health minister did not have the final say.

“Everything that is related to corona is now in the [central] government’s hands,” another health consultant agreed. “There’s tremendous political pressure coming from the president’s office to control all of this.”

Since Tanzania’s first known case of COVID-19 was detected in the northern city of Arusha in March, the government has officially registered 509 positive cases and 21 deaths. But the last update was more than two weeks ago – on 29 April – a point highlighted by the US embassy when it issued a warning to its citizens on Wednesday.

“The risk of contracting COVID-19 in Dar es Salaam is extremely high,” the US embassy statement said. “Despite limited official reports, all evidence points to exponential growth of the epidemic in Dar and other locations in Tanzania.”

A doctor working in a leading private hospital in Dar es Salaam said more than 60 COVID-19 cases had been admitted to his facility by 6 May, a scale that was already straining its services, with staff from all departments being called on to help. “The number of infected people is likely to be multiple times higher than official figures,” the doctor told TNH.

Footage of secret burials of people who allegedly died of COVID-19 are doing the rounds on social media, while parliament has been suspended following the death of three legislators in quick succession from unknown causes – fuelling speculation over the extent of the outbreak.

The government has adopted a politics of silence. President John Magufuli is chairman of the regional Southern African Development Community bloc, yet it was South Africa that called a SADC meeting this month to discuss COVID-19, and Tanzania did not participate.

The country was also absent on Wednesday from a virtual East African Community meeting on the regional response to coronavirus. 

The alleged politicisation of the response is reminiscent of the government’s approach to Ebola last year, when it withheld information from the World Health Organisation over potential cases in the country.

Concerned neighbours

As a result of the apparent secrecy, concern is mounting among Tanzania’s neighbours over the potential unchecked spread of COVID-19.

Zambia closed its border with Tanzania on Sunday, and Kenya is considering following suit after truck drivers coming from Tanzania tested positive for the virus.

The Tanzanian government’s initial response to COVID-19 was to shut schools and prohibit most mass gatherings – steps it points to as proof that it does appreciate the seriousness of the outbreak.

“Tanzania has implemented more than 40 measures to curb the disease,” government spokesperson Hassan Abbasi said in a WhatsApp message to TNH. “We have three national response committees to COVID and are working daily to curb the disease.”

Abbasi rejected the US embassy’s allegation of a surge in cases. “Anyone is free to go to Dar es Salaam and see if there is any single ‘overwhelmed hospital or health facility’,” he said.

However, in addition to the debate over the figures, there has been a succession of controversial measures and statements from Magufuli.

This article was originally published by New Humanitarian.


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