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Tanzania’s President Says Country Is Virus Free. Others Warn of Disaster

2020-08-04 22:36:06

NAIROBI, Kenya — More than 88 days have passed since Tanzania reported even a single new coronavirus case — far longer than any other African country. Tanzania’s president has declared the scourge “absolutely finished” and encouraged tourists to come back.

The problem is that, outside of Tanzania, people are skeptical. And inside Tanzania, few dare stand up to the president, John Magufuli, who has become increasingly autocratic since he was elected five years ago.

Mr. Magufuli has said that the power of prayer helped purge the virus from the country, even as the African continent is expected this week to cross the threshold of one million reported cases.

The Tanzanian president has promoted an unproven herbal tea from Madagascar as a cure. He has disparaged social distancing and mask wearing. And his government has not disseminated any recent data to the World Health Organization. The group last heard from Tanzania on April 29, when the country reported 509 cases and 21 deaths from Covid-19.

Mr. Magufuli stood before government and security officials in the capital, Dodoma, on July 20 and praised them for restoring safety in the east African nation of nearly 60 million. “Our enemies will say a lot, but here in Tanzania we are safe,” he said. “We put God first, and God heard us.”

Outside of Tanzania, doubt about the conspicuous absence of new cases or deaths has only been reinforced by Mr. Magufuli’s behavior over the past few months.

Opposition leaders in Parliament demanded testing for all lawmakers after three died within days of each other in April. The demand went unheeded, and Parliament is now suspended ahead of the October election.

In neighboring Kenya, lawmakers have expressed concern about Tanzania’s handling of the pandemic. The Kenyan authorities denied entry to dozens of Tanzanian truck drivers who had tested positive at border points.

In May, the United States Embassy also warned of an “exponential growth” of infection in Tanzania, saying the risk of contracting the virus in the commercial port city of Dar es Salaam was “extremely high.”

Mr. Magufuli’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic “has been nothing short of an irresponsible disaster,” said Tundu Lissu, an opposition leader who fled the country in 2017 but recently returned to run for president. “His attitude has been Covid-19 will somehow go away if we all stop talking about it.”

Officials in Tanzania say they have enforced internationally recommended measures, whether dealing with public gatherings or arriving tourists, and that they continue to work with the W.H.O. and other countries to curb the spread of the virus.

At the same time, said Hassan Abbas, a government spokesman, the world should not “shy away” from emulating what he called the country’s best practices.

“We have something to teach the rest,” he said.

The W.H.O. has said it continues to engage Tanzania through its membership in various technical committees and has advised the country to scale up surveillance. Negotiations were also underway between the Ministry of Health and the W.H.O. regarding sharing information, Zabulon Yoti, the W.H.O. acting Africa director for emergency preparedness and response, said in a statement.

But the organization has not overtly questioned Tanzania’s lack of reporting. Other international public health officials are far more blunt in their skepticism.

John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa C.D.C., said he was “very worried” Tanzania had not disclosed any information for months, hindering the agency’s ability to help coordinate and guide the continent’s response in the pandemic.

“The best way to deal with this is good information, good data and good science,” Dr. Nkengasong said, adding that governments like Tanzania’s should be cognizant “that any infection anywhere will be infections everywhere in Africa.”

“None of our countries is an island,” he said.

Mr. Magufuli rose to power in 2015 on an anti-corruption platform, promising to deal with the graft that had plagued the nation for years. A former lawmaker and cabinet minister, he gained the nickname “The Bulldozer” while serving at the ministry of works.

After assuming office as president, he purged the public payroll of so-called ghost workers — fictitious employees created for dishonest purposes. He channeled funds intended for national celebrations to health operations and began holding public officials and contractors accountable by paying them surprise visits.

He also undertook efforts to revive the national airline and cut foreign travel budgets for civil servants. When farmers complained that big corporate buyers were offering low prices for cashews, a major export in Tanzania, the president sent in the army to buy the cashews at a higher price.

But these popular efforts did not last long. His administration soon began to crack down on the media, ban the collection of statistics and data without government approval and pass laws that placed restrictions on human rights organizations.

The moves surprised those who had hoped Mr. Magufuli would change the country’s direction for the better. “Magufuli looked like a fresh start,” said Maria Sarungi Tsehai, director of Kwanza TV, which was suspended for 11 months after reporting on a Covid-19 health alert from the United States Embassy.

The loss of freedom of expression under Mr. Magufuli, she said, meant that many people “shudder in terror” from saying anything against the government, including about its handling of the pandemic.

Several doctors, health advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations in Tanzania declined to comment for this article for fear of reprisals.

“The only voices left are very few of us,” Mr. Tsehai said. “And that’s actually becoming a very scary scenario.”

While Mr. Magufuli endeared himself to supporters early on, critics say his policies are increasingly undermining the fabric of a nation once considered a paragon of stability in the region.

Health experts warn that Mr. Magufuli’s denial around the coronavirus could be calamitous.

“With no testing data or clinical surveillance information, Tanzania will be late in detecting and dealing with a potentially delayed explosion of severe clinical cases,” said Frank Minja, a Tanzanian doctor who is an associate professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at the Yale School of Medicine.

The opposition is hoping to use the government’s handling of the pandemic to rally voters against Mr. Magufuli in October. Despite the president’s clampdown on political organizing and what is said about the virus, the opposition party, Chadema, has registered millions of new members, said Mr. Lissu, the opposition candidate who fled the country in 2017.

October could be a “make or break election” in Tanzania’s history, said Mr. Lissu. “We stand on the brink of disaster,” he said. “But we are also on the brink of a miracle.”


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