COVID-Denying President Dies Aged 61

Tanzania's John Magufuli never wore a mask in public and promoted herbal remedies to stave off COVID. According to the country's opposition he died from coronavirus.
COVID-Denying President Dies Aged 61
A man reads a newspaper with a headline announcing the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli, in Dar es Salaam. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has died, the country’s vice president has announced.

Officials said the 61-year-old died of heart complications, but opposition parties in Tanzania have for days accused the government of covering up that Magufuli – one of the continent’s most prominent COVID-19 deniers – had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

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Magufuli, not seen in public for more than two weeks, died in hospital in the capital Dar es Salaam Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, now the acting president, said in a televised address.    

Magufuli was first admitted to hospital for a day on the 6th of March, Hassan said, before being taken back to hospital eight days later where he remained until his death. 

There has been speculation on social media that Magufuli has been seriously ill for the past three weeks. The day after he was readmitted into hospital, opposition leader Tundu Lissu claimed that government sources had told him Magufuli was on life support after falling ill with COVID. Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa publicly denied Lissu’s claims, telling the nation in a televised statement that Magufuli was “around, healthy and working hard.” Four people were even arrested on suspicion of spreading rumours that the president was ill.

Over the past year, Magufuli, who was serving his second term in office, had faced significant criticism for publicly denying the threat posed by COVID-19.

In April 2020, Tanzania stopped publishing coronavirus infection data, making it impossible to determine the severity of the pandemic. It was, however, clear from the number of patients seeking treatment at public hospitals and from the number of daily funeral masses that Magufuli was severely downplaying what was obviously a major public health crisis. Deaths were instead listed as pneumonia.

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Magufuli advocated for alternative treatments, including steam baths, herbal remedies, and prayer. He only slightly relented in late February on the issue of masks, though he still made claims that masks only made things worse. He never wore a mask in public and warned Tanzanians against getting vaccinated. Critics claim his policies may have contributed to thousands of unnecessary deaths. 

In February, Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice-president of the country’s semi-autonomous Zanzibar region, died from COVID.

Magufuli, branded “the Bulldozer”, won his second term in October last year with over 84 percent of the votes in elections that independent observers said were marred by irregularities, voter intimidation and violence. Lissu, the opposition leader, only returned to Tanzania last year to stand for election after three years in exile in Belgium, following an assassination attempt in 2017 where he was shot 16 times.

Tanzania has been sliding towards autocracy since Magufuli took power. After assuming office in 2015, Magufuli initiated what he called an anti-corruption campaign, eliminating thousands of nonexistent "ghost workers" from the payrolls, and asking employees to justify their jobs. He fired public officials on live television. In 2018, his government announced the creation of an anti-gay surveillance team. He also made it illegal to question government statistics, making them unreliable. Magufuli also promoted the policy of permanently expelling school girls who become pregnant in a campaign against "immoral behaviour." Concerns over freedom of speech have also been extensive, especially in light of consistent social media blackouts.

Tanzania now begins 14 days of national mourning while Hassan is expected to complete Magufuli’s current term, which ends in 2025, making her East Africa’s only serving woman president.