Bumbling, irrational, deadly: The Tanzanian president is getting the Covid-19 response all wrong

OPINION

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has chosen not to deal with the Covid-19 crisis as a serious healthcare issue that poses a significant threat to the lives of Tanzanians. Instead, he has sought to deal with it as a national security issue, threatening the media and healthcare officials about sharing information with the public. 

This is both irrational and dangerous. 

Flying in the face of both regional and international best practice, President Magufuli has taken minimal measures to confront the coronavirus, and is not trusting scientific and expert medical advice. 

Two weeks ago, he even questioned the efficacy of Covid-19 tests at Tanzania’s National Health Laboratory, claiming ludicrously that a goat and a papaya had tested positive for the virus. 

At the same time, he has sought a way to bring the questionable herbal remedy from Madagascar to Tanzania, and urged citizens to use prayer to fight off the virus. This past Sunday, he declared that Tanzania is winning the battle against the pandemic and accordingly would be reopening schools, universities and reinstating sports fixtures. This statement was made without any publication of official or verifiable statistics about the rate of infection and deaths due to Covid-19. The last publication of such figures was made on April 29.


His declaration of victory comes at a time when numerous other reports indicate that infections and death rates are rising rapidly. Citizens have been wondering about mysterious burials that have been seen to take place in the dead of night.

Last week, the United States Embassy in Dar es Salaam issued a communique stating that the “risk of contracting Covid-19 in Dar es Salaam is extremely high,” and that “all evidence points to exponential growth of the epidemic in Dar es Salaam and other locations in Tanzania”.

In the past few days, both Kenya and Zambia have sealed their borders with Tanzania due to concerns about rising infection rates in the country.

Confusion reigns among Tanzanians about what exactly is going on, and people quite rightly fear that things are about to become much worse. Certainly, the president’s bumbling approach to this pandemic is exposing Tanzania to even greater healthcare and economic challenges. 

One conclusion is clear – that the government has decided on a herd immunity approach. They are prepared to allow some deaths hoping that the majority of the population will build up an immunity. This is a dangerous approach as Covid-19 is a new disease. Its mutation isn’t known and hence immunity isn’t assured.

Our government cannot afford to continue to play with the lives of our people and the future of our nation. As a matter of urgency, we need full and complete transparency. Detailed statistics, broken down by region, must be released immediately. Government briefings – allowing questions from the media – should take place on a daily basis.

Depending on the relevant statistics and modelling, measures need to be taken to save lives and prevent the health system from becoming even more overwhelmed. It is also paramount that the government should allow for independent international verification of tests as soon as possible, to allow for reliable scientific evidence about the state of Covid-19 in Tanzania. 

Finally, political parties, civil society, religious groupings stand ready to work together to defeat this pandemic. President Magufuli must stop ignoring the calls of patriotic Tanzanians who want to serve and do whatever it takes to navigate our country through this turbulent time. Tanzania needs leadership. Time is running out.

Zitto Kabwe is a member of Parliament in Tanzania, and leads the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendo party

This article was first published in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Zitto Kabwe
Zitto Kabwe is a member of Parliament in Tanzania, and leads the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendo party
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