The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tanzania’s leader says his country is ‘covid-free.’ The facts are proving him wrong.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli during his swearing-in ceremony in Dar es Salaam, in November 2015. (Daniel Hayduk/AFP via Getty Images)

NAIROBI — Tanzania’s president recently rejected any need for coronavirus vaccines, instead promoting herbal cures. He claims the nation of 60 million has been “covid-free” since he presided over three days of national prayer in June.

Mark Mwandosya, a former minister in the president’s ruling party, knows that is not true.

Over the past month, Mwandosya has turned his social media feeds into a stream of mini-obituaries. Fifteen of his family members and close friends have died. As he rattled off their names, he said he could not prove any of them had coronavirus, because the government has limited testing almost entirely to travelers. But the stories all go the same way.

“It’s the same in each,” he said in an interview. “Challenges associated with breathing, losing strength and then dropping down dead.”

He is one of the few willing to speak on the record against increasingly authoritarian President John Magufuli’s official narrative. A dozen others, from doctors to students to taxi drivers, would only speak on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, but all said they knew of people who had died with covid-19-like symptoms in recent weeks. Hospitals do not release numbers of positive cases, and the last time the government released figures was in April.

The facts, however, are beginning to pile up. On Wednesday, Seif Sharif Hamad, 77, the most prominent politician on the island of Zanzibar, was pronounced dead at a hospital a little more than two weeks after his party announced that he, his wife, and several aides had tested positive for coronavirus.

The U.S. Embassy in Tanzania says the country has seen a significant increase in cases over the past month. A growing number of countries including Denmark, Oman and India have announced that travelers from Tanzania have tested positive not only for coronavirus but for the highly transmissible B.1.351 variant that is spreading widely throughout southern Africa.

Still, with no test required to enter Tanzania, the country has managed to maintain a higher level of global connectivity than its neighbors, with goods still flowing across its borders and tourists coming in — mostly from Eastern Europe. But without a plan to vaccinate its population as the rest of the world tries to contain the spread of the virus, the likelihood of the country’s isolation will only grow.

Since the three days of prayer last year, the government has rejected any assertion that coronavirus is spreading within its borders.

“There are so many things happening in Tanzania in terms of transforming the country into one of the best economies on earth,” said Hassan Abbas, the government’s spokesman, in a text message. “Don’t you have any other question than covid which is not an issue here?”

The government’s crackdown seems to have silenced formerly renowned health facilities like the National Institute for Medical Research in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and former capital. Before the pandemic, the institute would have been the country’s go-to for information on any kind of epidemiological concern.

“I don’t have anything to share with you,” said Yunus Mgaya, its director general. “It’s not an issue of authorization. I am not equipped with data and information to share with you on covid-19. I do not speak to journalists on these matters.”

Shadrack Mwaibambe, the president of the Medical Association of Tanzania, would only say, “I am trying to avoid controversial answers. But which cases are you talking about? Tanzania has no cases.”

Meanwhile, everyday life goes on with a mix of fear and eerie normalcy.

“There are wedding parties, people in clubs, whatever we used to do. Life is going on as if we are not in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Sam, a taxi driver in the northern city of Moshi, in a phone interview. “A few older people can be spotted wearing masks, especially the older people and those with divergent opinions from what the government is trying to say.”

In Dar es Salaam, street vendors have stocked stalls selling versions of the ginger-based herbal tonic promoted by Magufuli and his health minister Dorothy Gwajima.

“In the streets you find people buying ginger, or people inhaling steam,” said Charles, a student in the capital. “Most are looking for avenues to prevent themselves from contracting covid-19, but it remains hard to tell what is actually happening in the country because there is no data. Instead there is just fear.”

Gwajima declined to comment.

Last week, the U.S. Embassy issued a new travel warning that echoed previous ones in which it said the level of transmission in Tanzania was “very high.”

“The U.S. Embassy is aware of a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases since January 2021,” the warning reads. “The practice of COVID-19 mitigation and prevention measures remains limited.”

Britain has added Tanzania to its list of countries from which those who have traveled in the past two weeks are banned from entry.

When the global vaccine facility Covax released its first round of expected deliveries last month, Tanzania was not on the list — which was unsurprising given Magufuli’s strident stance against them.

“You should stand firm. Vaccinations are dangerous,” he said at a rally last month, repeating a claim that is not supported by science. “If the White man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for AIDS by now. He would have found a vaccination for tuberculosis by now. He would have found a vaccination for malaria by now. He would have found a vaccination for cancer by now.”

Magufuli’s dismissal of calls for solidarity in ending the pandemic has left the international community with the difficult job of assessing the severity of spread within Tanzania without any help from its government. Countries that opt not to vaccinate their citizens could also incubate the virus, offering it a base from which to mutate, even as it is diminished or eliminated in the rest of the world.

“Tanzania is a sovereign country. We can’t go there and pull down data,” said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a recent news conference. “Not cooperating will make it dangerous for everybody.”

Earlier this week, the health minister of Oman, which shares a long history with Tanzania, announced that 18 percent of travelers from Tanzania had tested positive on arrival in Oman, well above any other country’s figures. On Tuesday, Oman released a new list of countries from which certain passengers were allowed to enter, and Tanzania was not on it.

“We are not an island,” said Charles Kitima, secretary general of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, another of the few organizations that have spoken out against Magufuli’s denials. He noted that the number of funerals his churches were facilitating had increased but said without data it was hard to pin it to covid-19. Nevertheless, he saw a glimmer of hope in the government’s new messaging.

“We also have to see that the government is now insisting on the use of traditional medicine,” he said. “Indirectly, you may say that they have accepted that there is a problem of covid-19 although it is not mentioned explicitly.”

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