Inside the Country That Was Ruled by COVID-Deniers

In Tanzania doctors have been fighting two enemies during the pandemic: coronavirus, and their own government.
April 28, 2021, 11:26am
Its COVID-Denying President Is Dead. Will Tanzania Now Fight Against the Virus?
Tanzanian performing artist Alex Kalemera, also known as the Tanzania Joker, poses for a photograph as he raises awareness against the spread of COVID-19 on a street in Dar es Salaam in April last year. Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – “Where I was working we [had] a lot of patients showing up. We were trying, really, to save them but we couldn’t even talk openly about COVID because of Magufuli,” said Dr Juma, which is not his real name. 

Juma spoke with VICE World News on the condition of anonymity, fearful of retribution for speaking out. Because as he and fellow medical workers in Tanzania battled the raging spread of COVID throughout their country, they faced down another enemy: their own government. 

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Former President John Magufuli, often called by his nickname “the Bulldozer,” cracked down on freedom of expression, the press, and targeted citizens who possessed dissenting opinions with harassment and jail time. 

When the pandemic struck, he turned his authoritarian ways to control the narrative around coronavirus, ardently denying its existence and dismissing so-called “Western” tactics of dealing with it, including testing, wearing masks, and vaccines. Then suddenly, in March, he died after a period out of the public eye. Officially the cause of death was heart disease, but opposition politicians suspect he had contracted COVID and died in hospital. While there are signs his successor as President is not an outright COVID denier, she still hasn’t rolled out any sort of vaccination programme, keeping Tanzania in a small club of African countries not participating in the COVAX vaccination programme.

Doctors in the trenches of Tanzanian hospitals, like Juma, faced the double threat of contracting COVID and being targeted by the government for advising patients to adhere to World Health Organisation guidelines. Instead, Magufuli and his cabinet pushed Tanzanians towards steam therapy and healthy drinks to combat the virus. 

Juma worked on a COVID ward from March to November last year before moving out of the country. According to him, the colleagues he left behind say despite the lack of verified information about the virus, wards are still overflowing. 

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“COVID is still there and it is still killing people,” he told VICE World News. 

Tanzania hasn’t released any official data on COVID-19 since May 2020. The numbers still stand at 509 infected and 21 dead. That’s largely due to the denial and misinformation pedalled by Magufuli’s government, which declared the country was free of COVID last June. 

But while neighbouring countries were ramping up testing and coordinating COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, Tanzania continued with life as normal as the virus ravaged the country. On the 10th of February, the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam released a health alert noting a “significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases since January 2021.” 

John Magufuli (right) greets opposition politician Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad with a foot tap in March last year. It was one of the few public measures he took in response to the coronavirus. Photo: Tanzanian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

John Magufuli (right) greets opposition politician Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad with a foot tap in March last year. It was one of the few public measures he took in response to the coronavirus. Photo: Tanzanian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Embassies and the WHO have tread lightly when it comes to directly chastising Tanzania for its reckless stance. A WHO official told VICE World News that otherwise they risked alienating the country’s leadership, and instead continued to lobby for better access to data in order to help Tanzania emerge from the health crisis. 

A sudden change of leadership may be the turning point the international community has been waiting for. 

On the 19th of March, the then-Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, announced the death of President Magufuli, before ascending to the presidency herself. Many accepted the rumours about Magufuli’s COVID diagnosis, given the recent deaths of two high profile Tanzanian politicians who succumbed to the virus

President Suluhu Hassan has not entirely reversed course but she has announced the formation of a committee to look into whether Tanzania should reconsider its handling of the pandemic. 

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Notably, the new president also announced that media organisations banned by Magufuli’s government should be allowed to re-open, signalling an openness to information that could conflict with the government narrative. 

VICE World News asked the President’s office and the Ministry of Health and Social Development for an update on the committee and progress against the virus and received no response. 

 The regional newspaper, The East African, displays a map showing COVID-19 statistics in Africa, with no data from Tanzania. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images

The regional newspaper, The East African, displays a map showing COVID-19 statistics in Africa, with no data from Tanzania. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images

For Juma, it’s too little, too late from the country’s political elite. 

They need to hand it to health practitioners to deal with it and politicians need to step aside because not everything is politics. Having politics in something that is a matter of life and death... it's not wise,” he said in reaction to the formation of Suluhu Hassan’s task force. 

Opposition politician James Frances Mbatia, leader of the NCCR-Mageuzi party, believes President Suluhu Hassan to be more measured than her predecessor, describing her as someone who will take a hard look at the data. 

But measuring data has been one of the biggest downfalls of Tanzania’s response plan.  

“There’s total confusion. We are instead of reducing the fear, we are creating more fear,” Mbatia told VICE World News on the Magufuli era of refusing to collect information.  

President Samia Suluhu Hassan attends the funeral of her predecessor last month. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images

President Samia Suluhu Hassan attends the funeral of her predecessor last month. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images

Despite the crackdown on national and foreign press, a VICE World News team gained access, in the days after Magufuli’s death. 

In the capital and beyond, daily life in Tanzania is largely normal and as unrestricted as it was under Magufuli, a trend that could see a devastating third wave in the country where a novel “variant of interest” was found in Angola in a traveller from Tanzania with more than 30 mutations – a global record. 

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Many Tanzanians have embraced government-sanctioned herbal remedies like vegetable smoothies with ginger and lemon and steam inhalation with leaves like eucalyptus. 

Jason Msfari built a steam inhalation booth during the first wave of the pandemic offering a treatment and a cure for coronavirus. He says COVID-19 is 100 percent curable. (There is currently no known cure for COVID.)

People wash their hands outside the entrance to Muhimbili National Hospital in Dar es Salaam in March last year after the country's first COVID case was announced. Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

People wash their hands outside the entrance to Muhimbili National Hospital in Dar es Salaam in March last year after the country's first COVID case was announced. Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

“I have had COVID two times now, the first time it was the mild one and I treated myself. The second wave came with a much serious infection, it took me a lot to recover,” he said. 

Msfari supported the government strategy on hiding the COVID statistics saying, “If the government releases the figures it would cause fear and uncertainty. We are better off without the statistics.”

Mass gatherings are still taking place and President Suluhu Hassan encouraged the church and religious institutions to preach to their congregants about hygiene measures, social distancing, and mask wearing. 

VICE World News visited the Uamsho Morovian church in the Magomeni area within Dar Es Salaam for Sunday mass in March. No social distancing was observed and none of the congregants wore masks. The only prevention measure was a locally made sanitiser made by a volunteer from the church. 

Rose Bell, who is a member of the church, has been selling an unregistered COVID-19 herbal medicine in 50ml bottles. She said she has been selling to a wide number of people including members of the military. 

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Pastor Noel Mwakalinga, the lead pastor at the Uamsho Morovian church, doesn’t trust the use of these herbal remedies. 

A woman leaves a steam inhalation booth in Das es Salaam. Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

A woman leaves a steam inhalation booth in Das es Salaam. Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

“These herbal remedies are just a trial and error. If the top world scientists do not yet have a cure for this, how can we trust these local herbs?” Mwakalinga said.

In the Moshi region of Tanzania, residents reported a huge upsurge in the number of funeral convoys coming from Dar Es Salaam in recent months. 

VICE World News visited the town of Njia Panda, in Moshi, where funeral convoys congregate after long drives from various parts of the country, and spoke with several residents who claim they have seen an unprecedented number of deaths since the pandemic started. 

“If no one believes [COVID] is in Tanzania, they should just come to Njia Panda and see for themselves. We have never seen so many funerals,” said local resident Grace Kisangure. 

Reverend Bonventure Kyessi is among the few vocal voices who want the government to put up stringent containment measures to stop the scourge. 

Since the pandemic started, he’s lost his sister, her husband, and both of his parents to what he describes as breathing complications. He suspects it was COVID but the family was never informed of the cause of death, in line with government policy across the country. 

“Myself, as a person, I can say that I am not happy about how we are conducting this COVID issue in Tanzania,” Kyessi told VWN.

As the rest of the world rolls out vaccination campaigns, politician James Mbatia hopes a string of high profile deaths and a surge in overall deaths will serve as a much-needed wakeup call. 

Mbatia points to Tanzania’s history of receiving foreign aid for health programmes combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, to name a few. He questions why Tanzania remains an outlier as one of the only countries in Africa not participating in a vaccine programme, and the rationale behind this skepticism of foreign assistance. 

“Let us pull up our socks and deal with this reality,” he said.