POPULIST RESPONSE TO CORONAVIRUS TAKING TOLL ON TANZANIA’S STATURE

By Peter Kagwanja, Chief Executive, Africa Policy Institute.

Map of TanzaniaHistory will judge the stewards of Tanzania’s Fifth Republic harshly for their imprudent response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Dar-es-Salam announced its first confirmed case of coronavirus on March 16, 2020, its leadership has stridently walked a populist path.

Tanzanian government represents the anti-science strain of populism that has denied and downplayed the COVID-19 crisis.

When COVID-19 struck, Mr. Magufuli avoided curfews or lockdowns, which Kenya and Uganda had introduced to contain the pandemic.

In May, Tanzania declared the end of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming a “tremendous drop” in infections and an increase in recoveries from the disease across the country.

The government orchestrated a dramatic opening-up of the country, declaring Tanzania a ‘coronavirus-free’ zone.

Churches and mosques were reopened. The government lifted a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arriving in the country.

On May 21, Mr. Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities would be reopened on June 1. He also called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. The next day, Dar-es-Salaam’s regional commissioner, Mr. Paul Makonda, urged pub owners to reopen their businesses and throw parties to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

This approach was based on what President Magufuli described as “divine intervention”.

In April last year, Tanzania stopped tracking COVID-19 infections or sharing updates on the pandemic. This was based on the unproven allegation that samples of papaya, quail, and goat all tested positive at the National Health Laboratory. The test was, however, not independently verified. Nevertheless, President Magufuli alleged that officials of the National Health Laboratory were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by announcing more positive cases. The lab was temporarily shut down to allow investigations into the alleged data fraud. The laboratory director, Dr Nyambura Moremi, was suspended.

The government even forbade the mentioning of coronavirus as the cause of death in Tanzania. Instead, death certificates of patients who died of coronavirus would mention acute pneumonia or respiratory challenges.

The government urged people to use herbal remedies to “stay safe”, with Mr. Magufuli telling Tanzanians that his own daughter, who had contracted the virus, recovered due to steam therapy and consumption of lemons.

Tanzania’s leadership has also warned officials against importing COVID-19 vaccines. This forced WHO to urge Tanzania to stick to science in the fight against COVID-19.

Owing to this denialism, the government has not secured personal protective equipment for its doctors and health workers.

Early last year, the World Bank declared Tanzania a middle-income country (MIC). But denialism has wreaked havoc on East Africa’s second-largest economy. A UN report published in April 2020 depicted a country as badly devastated by the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

Tanzania’s COVID-19 populism has fueled authoritarian undertows, rolling back gains made in expanding democratic freedoms. It also provided a perfect excuse to clamp down on the opposition ahead of Tanzania’s general elections in October last year.

The country’s devil-may-care approach to the pandemic led to diplomatic tiffs with Kenya, whose reports showing increased numbers of truck drivers testing positive for COVID-19 as they crossed the border–which irked Dar-es-Salaam.

Kenya closed all its borders with Tanzania and deported 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19, allowing only cargo to pass through. Uganda had similarly decided to deny, Tanzanians, entry into Uganda if they test positive for COVID-19 at the border.

In retaliation, Tanzania ordered regional commissioners in Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga–which border Kenya–to bar Kenyan truck drivers and cargo trucks from passing through. The border crisis led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Ms. Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Mr. Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem–which is now settled.

Pandemic populism has also taken a heavy toll on Tanzania’s regional stature. The country skipped an important consultative meeting on COVID-19 organised by the East African Community (EAC) on May 12, 2020. It also missed the COVID-19 consultative forum of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), although it was the block’s sitting chair.

Furthermore, pandemic populism cost lives and put thousands of Tanzanians, and others at risk.

The Open University of Tanzania announced that coronavirus was “spreading fast” in the country, which the Government has since denied.

But a string of COVID-19-related hospital cases and deaths of high-profile Tanzanians has sounded the death knell for pandemic populism.

Zanzibar's First Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad, his wife and aides fell ill with the virus at the end of January.

More than 10 senior officials have died due to confirmed coronavirus illness within 45 days from late December 2020 to the beginning of this month, including five brigadier generals, a colonel of the Tanzania Peoples Defense Force and the deputy commissioner in the Prisons Service.

Late President MagufuliWhile President Magufuli was hoping to pray out the pandemic, more than 60 nuns, 25 priests and two lay people were reported to have died within one month.  

The deaths of Magufuli’s Chief Secretary John Kijazi, vice-president Seif Sharif Hamad in Zanzibar and Namibia’s third secretary to Tanzania, Selina Tjihero, are a wake-up call to Magufuli’s government to take COVID-19 seriously.

Despite the mounting death toll in Tanzania and the widespread hopeful optimism about the recently approved COVID-19, President Magufuli was busy warning people against rushing to accepting foreign vaccines.

Perhaps it was the urging of a Catholic Archbishop that finally pushed President Magufuli to reluctantly acknowledge that COVID-19 pandemic is real and serious.

The latest update on COVID-19 in Tanzania is that the President passed on of chronic heart problem. Despite official denial, the rumor persists that the virus appears to have driven the final nail into the coffin of populist response to the pandemic.

Upgraded version of the original article published in the Nation Saturday, February 13, 2021(Editor).