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From pandemic to infodemic

Amid the data drought, scare stories and cover-ups on Covid-19, there are signs that President Magufuli’s position is belatedly changing

As more officials and politicians fall victim to the Coronavirus amid mounting local and international criticism of President John Magufuli's downplaying of the crisis, there are signs of a belated change of policy at the top. Since late last month Magufuli has been urging Tanzanians to wear face masks (as long as they are locally made) and the government has been responding to requests for data from the World Health Organization (WHO) (AC Vol 61 No 10, The Magufuli experiment). Until about a month ago, the most recent data on the pandemic from Tanzania had been gathered in June 2020.

Last week a coughing Minister of Finance Philip Mpango gave a press conference at the hospital where he is being treated following reports that he had died of Covid-19. Over the weekend (6-7 March) there has been a spate of unconfirmed reports and cryptic tweets about Magufuli’s own health.

A handful of generals, the Chief Secretary of government John Kijazi, and 78-year-old Seif Sharif Hamad, former vice-president of Zanzibar and national chairman of the opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo, are among the most prominent officials to have died after testing positive for Covid-19 in recent weeks.

Kijazi’s death was initially reported by government as resulting from a heart attack. 'Let's pray and fast for three days; I am sure we will win again,’ Magufuli told mourners at Kijazi’s funeral in late February.

Catholic bishops are sending the message that Magufuli refuses to: that Covid is spreading and that people should wear masks and wash their hands regularly. Charles Kitima, general secretary of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, last week announced the death of around 90 priests and nuns from respiratory illness in recent weeks.

There are still no government figures about infections and deaths from Covid, but before the recent policy shift, officials were warning that it was spinning out of control (AC Vol 61 No 7, Magufuli the outlier).

Other states in the East African Community took delivery their first batches of Covid vaccines last week via the WHO–backed Covax vaccine initiative but none were sent to Tanzania because its government had rejected the scheme. The government has changed it line on this as well so officials in Geneva are working on a distribution programme in Tanzania.

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