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Tanzania's Government Continues to Deny Covid-19

March 9, 2021
Health Studio
4 min read
Tanzania's Government Continues to Deny Covid-19

This article is part of IranWire's ongoing coverage of Covid-19 disinformation in different countries, in partnership with Health Studio.

By Shon Osimbo for Health Studio

The Tanzanian government has continued to shock the world with its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with politicians seemingly unphased by the current state of health in the world.

President John Magufuli, who recently began his second term in office, has led his government to disregard the World Health Organization (WHO)’s advice for fighting the virus. In fact, he has been insisting his country is Covid-19-free for months, despite the fact that people suspected of having the disease are dying in the country’s hospitals.

As well as ignoring requests to report Covid-19 case numbers, the government has refused to introduce lockdown measures in the country. Instead, Magufuli has told citizens to go on with their normal lives.

Repeated pleas from the WHO to introduce social distancing and other measures to combat Covid-19 have fallen on deaf ears, with the government continuing to ignore ample scientific evidence to show such action can slow the spread of the disease and save lives.


Disinformation from the government

As well as denying the existence of Covid-19, Magalufi and other politicians have actively shared disinformation with the public.

Tanzanian health minister Dorothy Gwajima falsely claimed during a recent press conference that drinking a smoothie made from ginger, onions, lemons and pepper would stop people catching Covid-19. But there is no scientific evidence to suggest this remedy will prevent infection.

She went on to recommend members of the public use herbal steaming remedies to treat respiratory infections, demonstrating how by wrapping a scarf around her head. Although steam inhalation is sometimes used to ease congestion caused by the common cold and other illnesses, there is no proof it can help treat Covid-19.

Gwajima also told the press conference that the government had no plans to procure Covid-19 vaccines, in spite of the fact they have been shown to be highly effective at preventing the disease.


Unfounded vaccination scepticism

President Magufuli recently described the vaccines — which clinical trials have shown to be safe — as “dangerous.”

He made several false claims, including suggesting the lack of a vaccine for HIV/AIDS meant the development of an effective Covid-19 vaccine was a lie. This line of questioning is frequently used to sow doubt about Covid-19 vaccines, but it is highly misleading.

It is very difficult to develop an effective vaccine for HIV for several reasons, including the fact that most vaccines work by imitating the way recovered patients’ bodies responded to a virus. But as no-one’s body has ever successfully cleared itself of HIV, scientists can’t develop a vaccine in this way.

It is comparatively easy to produce safe and effective vaccines for a range of other diseases, including Covid-19, the flu and polio.

Opposition leaders and activists have continued to criticise the Tanzanian government for downplaying the spread of coronavirus, despite it having ravaged many lives. Zitto Kabwe, a member of the opposition, called Magufuli’s vaccine comments undiplomatic and “extremely dangerous.”

He said: “Africa is struggling because of the limited supply of vaccinations, and here you have the president of the second-largest economy in East Africa saying that vaccinations are problematic. This is extremely dangerous and I really don’t know how deadly this comment from the president will be going forward.”


The beginnings of change?

But after months of denialist rhetoric, reality now seems to be creeping up on Magufuli. In a press conference this week he asked citizens to take precautions he had previously ridiculed, including wearing face masks. The turnaround of events by Magufuli is thought to have been influenced by the deaths of prominent Tanzanian leaders, including Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice-president of Zanzibar, and his own chief secretary, John Kijazi. Both are thought to have succumbed to Covid-19.

However, he continues to recommend unscientific and unevidenced methods of tackling the disease. At the funeral of his chief secretary last week, Magufuli asked citizens to fast and pray for three days in an effort to stop the spread of “respiratory diseases” in the country.

His recent press conference came just a day after WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged the Tanzanian government to take “robust action” to protect its people from Covid-19.

The health body has repeatedly called on Tanzania to report new cases of Covid-19, having failed to update its case tally since April last year. Reported cases remain at just 509 infections and 21 deaths, even though residents report overwhelmed hospitals and high numbers of suspected Covid-19 deaths.

Tedros Adhanom asked for this data again on February 21, appealing to the government to plan a vaccination drive. He made the request after announcing that several Tanzanians travelling to nearby countries had tested positive for the disease.

“I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting Covid-19 cases and share data,” he said. “I also call on Tanzania to implement the public health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmissions and to prepare for vaccinations.”



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