Tanzania’s state response to Covid-19 under fire

As the president urges citizens to gather in churches to pray, Tanzanians fear the coronavirus pandemic will overwhelm the country’s ill-equipped hospitals.

“Coronavirus is a devil. It cannot live in the body of Christ. It will burn instantly. This is a time to build our faith.” 

These were the words of Tanzania’s President John Magufuli. 

While many countries around the world are closing their borders and implementing lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of Covid-19, Tanzanians were instead urged by their president to congregate in places of worship to combat the deadly disease and to continue with all economic activities.

Many Tanzanians have expressed shock at the president’s response to the arrival of the virus in the country, and are demanding the government take more drastic measures to ensure the disease does not spread. 

“This disease is literally spreading all over the world,” said 25-year-old Deogratias Mahinyila, a student at the Law School of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam, the country’s commercial capital. “He should be banning people from congregating in churches – or anywhere else, not encouraging them.” 

“There seems to be a lack of seriousness [in the government],” he added. “We’ve seen that many countries in Africa are taking very serious measures. But in Tanzania, the government is taking this disease very lightly. They haven’t even closed the borders yet.” 

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Critics say the Tanzanian government needs to ensure the safety of its 57 million citizens amid the global pandemic, which has seen more than 700 000 people infected with the highly contagious disease. On 30 March, the Tanzanian health ministry confirmed the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country had increased to 19. But the actual number is believed to be much higher. On 31 March, the health ministry reported the country’s first death from coronavirus, a 49-year-old Tanzanian man in Dar es Salaam.

In Africa, more than 4 000 Covid-19 cases have been reported and there have been 135 deaths in at least 46 countries. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), told African countries to “wake up” and “prepare for the worst” during a news conference in Geneva. 

Recently, Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Africa head, said that about half the countries in sub-Saharan Africa still have a “narrowing” opportunity to curb the spread of coronavirus. She urged African governments to invest their efforts into aggressively tracing all contacts of imported cases, while “preparing for a possible, broader expansion of the virus”.

Dangerous words

After the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the small northern city of Arusha on 16 March 2020, the government announced the closure of all schools, including universities, and a ban on public gatherings – excluding religious activities. 

Splitting with their East African neighbours Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, which have sealed their borders and implemented strict measures to fight the disease, Tanzania has left its borders open and announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for arrivals coming from countries “most affected” by coronavirus. 

Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the ACT-Wazalendo opposition party, said the president’s words were “dangerous”. 

“The population of our people is such that probably 50% of the people will believe what he says because we are very faith-oriented in Tanzania,” he said. “And we have evidence that there are areas where [the coronavirus] has spread owing to religious gatherings.”

A Muslim gathering held at a mosque on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, for instance, is the source of hundreds of new coronavirus infections across Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the worst-hit African country with more than 1 300 confirmed Covid-19 cases, a church gathering in the Free State has been connected to a cluster of positive cases. 

20 March 2020: A man sells face masks on the streets of Arusha a few days after the first reported Covid-19 case in Tanzania. (Photograph by Jaclynn Ashly)
20 March 2020: A man sells face masks on the streets of Arusha a few days after the first reported Covid-19 case in Tanzania. (Photograph by Jaclynn Ashly)

“It’s making our citizens believe that the virus is not as contagious as it is,” Kabwe said. “So it has made it so people have been going on with their normal life activities. With the exception of more hand washing and using more hand sanitiser, people are continuing to live as normal.” 

Fatma Karume, a lawyer and former president of the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS), said the government’s response was “strange and disheartening” because “it implies that the only way out for us is prayers as opposed to any other measures based on modern scientific knowledge”. 

Karume, however, said she was “past the point of surprise”. 

Since Magufuli was elected in 2015, he has been the target of scathing criticisms for eroding freedoms of speech in the country, cracking down on civil society and journalists, and muffling democracy by banning political gatherings and routinely arresting opposition figures. 

“It has been years of this,” she said. “I would be insane after seeing the manner in which this government conducts itself to expect any better from them. You only get disappointed if you have expectations. I don’t have any expectations of my government.”

Not adequately prepared

For Freeman Mbowe, the chairperson of Tanzania’s main opposition party Chadema, the government’s policies hit close to home. His son, 26-year-old Dudley Mbowe tested positive for Covid-19 on 20 March. He was sick for about a week before he was tested. He picked up the virus in Dar es Salaam, where the Mbowe family lives. He had not recently travelled. 

“He was living with the family. He interacted with his parents, brothers, sisters and friends – and no one knew he had coronavirus,” Mbowe, who is now self-isolating at his home in Tanzania’s capital Dodoma, said. “But once he was diagnosed you would have expected that the whole family and everyone who had been in direct contact with him would have been quarantined to make sure the disease doesn’t spread.” 

But Mbowe said most of the individuals who had been in contact with Dudley were not provided “any kind of supportive engagement” from the government to ensure the virus was controlled. They decided on their own to take precautions, with Mbowe self-isolating in Dodoma and the rest of the family quarantining themselves at their home in Dar es Salaam. 

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According to Mbowe, it took about a week for him and his family to be tested after Dudley’s test came back positive. It then took several days for Mbowe to receive the results, which have since confirmed that Mbowe and his other family members are negative for the virus; however they will all continue isolating as an added precaution.

Dudley has remained in the isolation ward of the Temeke Hospital in Dar es Salaam since testing positive. According to Dudley, there are less than 30 beds in the isolation ward and there is a clear lack of medical equipment. 

“My son has been sick now for the last 10 days,” Mbowe said. “He’s coughing constantly, and he hasn’t been able to get a chest X-ray because they don’t have mobile X-rays at Temeke.” 

“I’ve been constantly complaining – and, mind you, I’m the leader of the opposition in this country – and I still have not been able to get my son an X-ray. Besides the beds, there doesn’t seem to be much else there [in the isolation ward].” 

Mbowe said he did not think the government was “adequately prepared” for a potential outbreak. “Now we’re dealing with a few patients, but in the next few weeks we could be dealing with many patients. If that becomes a reality, it will be a huge crisis for this country because we’re simply not prepared.” 

Tanzania already suffers from a shortage of medical equipment and trained personnel. Experts have warned that countries with weak healthcare systems and infrastructure, like Tanzania, could become quickly overwhelmed by the virus. 

Meanwhile, policies put in place by the Tanzanian government have been marred by shortcomings. For instance, arrivals in the country have complained that the hotels the government has designated for mandatory two-week quarantines are too expensive. 

In one video shared widely on social media, a woman at the Peacock Hotel in Dar es Salaam, where a single room costs $55 (just under R1 000) per night – the cheapest of the options available – said government officials escorted her to the hotel and then just left. 

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Ummy Mwalimu, Tanzania’s health minister, has since ordered regional commissioners in the country to identify more affordable facilities for those being quarantined.

Atiya Sumar, the head of programmes and business partnerships at the British Council in Tanzania, posted on her Twitter account that last week her son returned to Tanzania from the UK, which has reported almost 20 000 coronavirus cases and more than 1 000 deaths, and went straight to one of the designated hotels for quarantine. But many people arriving on the same flight skipped the quarantine and went home. 

Comprehensive national plan

Mbowe, along with other opposition leaders, activists and intellectuals, has urged the Tanzanian government to immediately seal the country’s borders and be clear and transparent about its national plan to prepare for a potential outbreak in Tanzania. 

Besides erecting more hand-washing stations outside business and offices, announcing the formation of cabinet committees and posting photos of government officials visiting hospitals that will be treating coronavirus patients, very little has been revealed about the specifics of the government’s plans to combat the pandemic.

“It’s not just about providing some equipment at the isolation wards for patients who are already diagnosed,” Mbowe said. “We need to have a comprehensive national plan and it must be shared in detail with the public. We need to act quickly. For instance, we could be converting the dorms of now empty university buildings into makeshift hospitals.” 

Such preparations for a Covid-19 outbreak are already under way in other countries. For instance, Brazil, which now has thousands of confirmed cases, is transforming more than half of its football stadiums into field hospitals to prepare for an inevitable surge of coronavirus-related hospitalisations. 

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“Tanzania is part of the global community,” Mbowe told New Frame. “Corona has no borders. It has no race. It can attack anyone. Therefore, Tanzania cannot live in isolation. For our country to be able to face the challenges that will come along with this virus, our government must accept reality.” 

“But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like our president understands the gravity of the situation and is refusing to adopt the serious policies that all other countries are doing to protect their citizens.” 

Mbowe also underscored the importance of developing testing centres in each administrative region of Tanzania, noting that the country’s testing capabilities at the moment are extremely limited since all samples must be sent to one lab in Dar es Salaam. 

“Your preparations cannot be based on the belief it won’t get bad,” Mbowe added. “If you prepare adequately and then it doesn’t happen in the way it happened in Italy or Spain, then lucky you. But if it does happen, at least you’re somewhat prepared.” 

Kabwe recently published an open letter to the president, in which the opposition figure urged the government to be more transparent on data related to Covid-19 patients, to enhance the government’s communication with the public on issues related to the pandemic, to suspend all government meetings, including parliament and the courts, to release bailable and vulnerable prisoners, and to close the borders. 

Deep mistrust 

New Frame asked the offices of the prime minister and health ministry for comment many times, but did not receive a response. 

When New Frame requested a comment from Hassan Abbas, the government’s chief spokesperson who is in charge of channelling all information related to the government’s Covid-19 response, he replied: “I don’t know what you are referring to as government [sic] not taking serious measures. Who measures other country’s measures? What set of measures should be taken to say the government is serious? That’s why we have no time to engage in such uninformed debates.” 

Abbas refused an interview with New Frame and would not provide more information on the equipment and beds available for Covid-19 patients at the Temeke Hospital in Dar es Salaam.

Semi-autonomous Zanzibar, meanwhile, has decided to follow the global trend, splitting with the central government’s policies and closing its borders to curb the spread of the virus. 

Many Tanzanians have criticised the central government for their slow pace when sharing information related to Covid-19 with the public. Others do not trust the government’s numbers at all. As neighbouring countries have continued to report a steady increase in positive cases, Tanzania’s numbers have climbed slowly, despite the government taking a much less aggressive approach to containing the virus, which has sparked suspicions among some. 

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Karume said this public distrust stems from the “government’s need to control statistics”. In 2018, the Tanzanian parliament amended the Statistics Act of 2015, which had already made it a crime for Tanzanians to disseminate “false official statistics,” to make it a jailable offense to publish statistics without the approval of the National Bureau of Statistics. However, last year the Tanzanian parliament removed this amendment, which would have threatened civil society groups with prison terms for publishing independent statistics. 

“[Magufuli] pushed this narrative and agenda and made it so people were scared to even discuss alternative figures or statistics to those put out by the government,” she said. “When you try and give yourself legitimacy not through open discussions, but through force, you’re creating a society that can no longer trust you.” 

This would not be the first time the Tanzanian government has been criticised over its handling of deadly diseases and its lack of transparency. Last year, the WHO issued a rare public rebuke against the Tanzanian government for its failure to provide detailed information on suspected Ebola cases in the country – an allegation the government has denied

In 2016, Magufuli also fired Mwele Malecela, then director-general of the National Institute of Medical Research, for going public with a report that detailed findings of the Zika virus among the Tanzanian population. Malecela now heads the department of control of neglected tropical diseases at the WHO. 

Last year, during a political rally, Magufuli admitted to firing Malecela because she was sent by “imperialists” to “announce we have the disease so that tourists would not come to our country”. 

For Mbowe, he feels lucky that his son was one of the first to contract the virus – before the hospitals become overwhelmed with patients. 

“In the near future, the magnitude of patients that will start flowing into the hospitals will be so big that we’re not going to be able to cope,” Mbowe said. “How many unlucky families out there are going to become the victims of this?”

“The rest of the world is locking down. But in Tanzania the bars and restaurants are open. We’re functioning as if nothing is happening. Our preparedness is hoping that God protects us. But God will not protect people who cannot protect themselves.”

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