Tanzanian President Changes Position on COVID After Deaths and WHO Statement

The Medical Association of Tanzania (MAT) has started a massive awareness campaign on the prevention of COVID-19 following last Sunday’s admission by President John Magufuli and the Ministry of Health that the disease exists in the country.  

“We have started an advocacy strategy through the media and communities on prevention of COVID-19,” Dr. Elisha Osati, the immediate past president of the Medical Association of Tanzania told Health Policy Watch in an exclusive interview.  

“We have a lot of patients in our wards so we are also dealing with their treatment and management,” Dr. Osati said. “We of course have been taking precaution on our side, for our patients and their relations.” 

The medical profession has been stressing wearing masks, washing hands, using hand sanitizers, social distancing and generally seeking medical help for those that may feel unwell.  

For months, the Tanzania president, who has a doctorate in chemistry, cast doubt over the existence of coronavirus and said it was the work of the devil. Since April, Tanzania has not reported a single case of the virus to the WHO and no public measures have been implemented to contain the virus. 

High-Profile Deaths, WHO prompting

A source within the Tanzania government said that the  president’s recent change of heart could be due to the deaths of two prominent politicians, the vice-president Zanzibar Seif Sharif Hamad, died on Wednesday of COVID-19, and the head of civil service, John Kijazi who died on the same day although the reason for his death has not been given.   

However, another source said it was due to the WHO Director-General’s statement on Tanzania and COVID-19 issued on 20 February, in which he urged the government to scale public health measures against COVID-19 and to prepare for vaccination – a highly usual step for the global body that does not usually involve itself in the internal affairs of member states.

“This situation remains very concerning. I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting COVID-19 cases and share data. I also call on Tanzania to implement the public health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmission, and to prepare for vaccination,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

Use Knowledge and Science, Says Moeti

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, said the WHO encourages countries to use knowledge, science and evidence for implementations they ask them to undertake.

The change to a medical approach from a faith-based approach comes amidst a pandemic that the Tanzania government may slowly be admitting to. 

However, a number of religious leaders have challenged Magufuli’s stance as being ‘not completely right’ and have been trying to encourage COVID-19 preventive measures within their communities. 

Catholic Bishop Siverine Niwemugizi of Rulenge-Ngara Diocese, which borders Rwanda and Burundi, suspended the celebration of public mass and community prayers. Instead, he resorted to using Radio Kwizera, established by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to broadcast Mass. 

Last Sunday, Magufuli acknowledged that there was a problem and called on people to wear face masks. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health issued a statement urging the public to guard against contagious and non contagious diseases in the country, avoid crowds and wear safe masks approved by the ministry.

The Partnership of Evidence Based Response to COVID-19 (PERC) Weekly Update: COVID-19 Epidemiology and Policy in Africa observed that in February alone, there were 293 social media posts mentioning pneumonia in Tanzania. One Twitter user commented, “My timeline and groups are inundated with obituaries, deaths caused by ‘severe pneumonia”.

The Tanzania Ministry of Health stopped releasing Covid-19 updates last April, blaming “fake” COVID-19 test kits and fear mongering. The last update indicating 509 confirmed cases and 21 deaths.

Tanzania stopped sending COVID-19 to the WHO in April.

Osati also told Health Policy Watch that the medical fraternity will also start advocating for the use of  vaccines in once they have been approved by the national drug regulatory bodies. 

“As scientists, we know that vaccines are game changers. But we are still waiting for the relevant bodies to test and approve them,” he said. “ We want a vaccine that is safe, effective and cost-effective. 

The Tanzanian government officials had dismissed COVID-19 vaccines and were instead promoting herbal remedies. The Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima said they were not satisfied that the vaccines were clinically proven.

Osati said scientists in his country would continue to dialogue with the authorities in government until the management of COVID-19 pandemic is medically managed.  

“We are pleased about the Tanzanian government actions. A gap that has been created since last year. We await an appropriate strategy to engage with Tanzania,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, during a weekly press briefing.


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