Implications of Tanzania’s Bungled Response to Covid-19

Tanzania’s ruling party has taken a series of counterintuitive steps in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As African nations administer testing and enforce lockdowns, Tanzania’s approach has stuck out like a sore thumb. The country is believed to be experiencing a soaring number of cases, but it has not released Covid-19 data since April 29.

Tanzania’s confirmed Covid-19 figures rest at 509 cases and 21 deaths, with a total of 652 administered tests. This differs drastically from neighboring Uganda and Kenya, which as of May 26 have administered 82,271 and 59,620 tests, respectively. But with no official lockdown in place, businesses still open, and citizens continuing to attend religious gatherings, Tanzania’s true caseload is believed to be much higher. The real number is estimated to top 1 million, a Tanzania-based health professional with intimate knowledge of hospital caseloads told us in an interview. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania has announced an “extremely high” risk of contracting Covid-19 in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, warning that “all evidence points to exponential growth” of the virus in the city and other parts of the country.

The most prudent next steps should be (1) administer more tests; (2) track cases; (3) produce and disseminate data and analytic models; (4) communicate evidence-based safety measures to the public; and (5) share information and coordinate closely with the East African Community (EAC) and international partners. But none of this has happened, and judging by recent events, it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Q1: How is Tanzania’s ruling party managing Covid-19?

A1: The response to Covid-19 by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party—led by President John Magufuli—has been characterized by conspiracy theories, tight control over information, and aversion to science. The government has refused to explain the sudden death of three members of parliament (MPs) within 11 days in late April, and videos of nighttime funerals have circulated online.

In perhaps his most baffling response to the virus, in early May President Magufuli announced that the country’s confirmed caseload was inflated due to “compromised” test kits that resulted in false positives, which he attributed to potential foreign “sabotage.” He came to this conclusion by testing non-human samples, including from a papaya and a goat. The “positive” test results prompted Magufuli to cast doubt not only on the test kits but also on the laboratory technicians, and he swiftly suspended the director of the National Health Laboratory—the country’s only facility testing samples for Covid-19. The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has rejected Magufuli’s assertion that the test kits were faulty.

Magufuli, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, has ignored scientific reason—championing religious devotion and natural remedies as cures for the virus. He has urged citizens to attend churches and mosques, reasoning Covid-19 is “satanic” and “cannot live in the body of Christ—it will burn instantly.” He announced three days of national prayer against Covid-19 on April 16. Magufuli has also recommended steam inhalation as a “scientific treatment,” has claimed his own son overcame the virus by drinking a lemon and ginger tincture, and has diverted government funding to the importation of botanical remedies from Madagascar.

While the ruling party’s response to Covid-19 has been appalling, it has not been a surprise. Since Magufuli’s inauguration in 2015, the ruling CCM party has exhibited paranoia of mabeberu (imperialists) and severely reduced its openness and transparency. According to Freedom House’s 2020 report on Tanzania, the government has increasingly “sought to obstruct access to public information in recent years.” This includes passing several laws that impede information sharing, such as the Access to Information Act, which imposes prison terms on officials who improperly release state data. In addition, independent collection of data remains severely hampered by administrative and extra legal action by authorities.

The ruling party’s secrecy around Covid-19 is reminiscent of another mishandling of critical health-related data. In September 2019, the Magufuli administration withheld clinical reports on two suspected Ebola-related deaths in Dar es Salaam, resulting in condemnation by the World Health Organization (WHO) after multiple requests for information. Tanzania’s health minister Ummi Mwalimu later admitted that her team did not send the clinical reports, arguing they were under no legal obligation to do so because the tests came back negative. It seems Tanzania’s 2019 Ebola obstructionism was a mere foreshadowing of the current Covid-19 catastrophe.

Q2: How are the political opposition and civil society responding?

A2: Tanzania’s political opposition and civil society—including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), artists, and celebrities—are demanding increased government transparency, countering conspiracy theories, and communicating relevant measures to the public. Prominent opposition leader Zitto Kabwe, head of the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) party, has called for detailed statistics, broken down by region, as well as daily government briefings that allow questions from the media. Zitto has exposed the ruling party’s lack of policy response, shared public health messages set to music, and warned the government to avoid mixing faith and science. In early May, Freeman Mbowe, head of the Chadema opposition party, called on fellow Chadema MPs to self-quarantine for two weeks following the sudden death of three MPs within 11 days. Mbowe has urged the ruling party to implement “emergency measures . . . to slow down the infection and [save] the lives of Tanzanians.” Chadema’s head of foreign affairs, Deogratias Munishi, has deplored Magufuli’s religious approach and urged the president to ban religious gatherings, institute a lockdown in high-risk regions, and allocate increased resources to the health sector. 

NGOs have also stepped up to the plate. Twaweza—a Dar-es-Salaam-based civil society organization and member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) steering committee—co-released a statement with OGP warning that governments (without expressly naming Tanzania’s) were weakening “parliamentary oversight and other vital checks and balances, [removing] key watchdog officials, [and instituting] aggressive censorship and pressure on journalists.” The statement called on governments to publish reliable information about Covid-19—including situational data, analytical models, and scientific findings—and increase access to information, among other measures. OGP and Twaweza warned that “[w]e can either address this pandemic in a way that protects or even revives trust, democracy, open and inclusive governance—or we can ignore them and expect a deeper erosion of open governance, one that would be very hard to reverse.” Similarly, Mwanahamisi Singano, a program manager at the women’s development organization FEMNET, has urged Magufuli to “tell us the truth, even if it’s bitter to swallow” in an open letter to her president in the South Africa-based Mail & Guardian newspaper. Singano warned that “our elders used to say: ‘He who covers up illness, gets discovered by death.’ And indeed, the deaths are exposing us.”

Tanzanian celebrities, influencers, and artists are also pitching in, exposing the extent of the outbreak, correcting misinformation, communicating safety measures, and financially supporting citizens. Musicians Kala Jeremiah and Malaika have released a song outlining protective measures against the virus, and Bongo Flava star Diamond Platnumz has pledged to pay three months of rent for 500 families during the outbreak. Los Angeles-based Mange Kimambi, a Tanzanian socialite turned activist with 4.4 million Instagram followers, has called on the Magufuli administration to implement more stringent measures and posted shaky videos of nighttime burials sent to her by followers across Tanzania. Meanwhile, renowned Tanzanian cartoonist Gado has addressed misperceptions and conspiracy theories about the virus in his cartoons, which are syndicated in regional and international outlets. And in the streets of Dar es Salaam, performance artist Alex Kalemera, dubbed the “Tanzanian Joker,” has raised awareness of Covid-19 by painting lungs onto his body, performing skits, and squeezing sanitizer in the hands of passersby.

Q3: What are the potential implications of Magufuli’s mismanagement?

A3: The ruling party’s botched response to Covid-19 has significant health, economic, and political consequences for Tanzania and the region. 

The high transmissibility of the virus, combined with the ruling party’s failure to implement a containment strategy, will lead to the increase of unexplained sudden deaths. As in other countries, the elderly population—as well as those living with HIV, diabetes, tuberculosis, and other immunocompromising conditions—will be the most vulnerable. Truck drivers and others transiting across Tanzania’s 29 administrative regions will be at a high risk for catching and spreading the virus. Due to Tanzania’s undoubtedly high—although unreported—caseload, Zambia and Kenya have closed their borders with Tanzania after an uptick in cases in border towns. Kenyan opposition politician Raila Odinga told BBC Swahili that Magufuli’s response to Covid-19 is “ill-advised” and that the “destinies” of EAC states are “tied together.”

The Tanzanian economy will also take a hit as the prices of exports fall and daily economic activities inevitably slow. The Ministry of Finance estimates that Tanzania’s economic growth will drop to 4 percent this calendar year due to Covid-19, down from 7 percent growth in 2019. The extent of damage to the economy is directly tied to Magufuli’s policies; the more severe and prolonged the outbreak, the longer it will take for the economy to recover. Travel and tourism, which account for 17 percent of Tanzania’s GDP and employ around 700,000 people, for example, have nearly halted. If Tanzania gains a reputation as a Covid-19 hotspot, its tourism industry may be affected for years to come. In addition, there may be more financial shockwaves down the line when EAC countries begin to reopen their economies but remain closed to Tanzania due to the protracted health crisis in the country.

Politically, Magufuli’s response to the virus has the potential to widen an internal rift within CCM, especially as the death toll rises dramatically. The schism is between two factions—one that backs Magufuli and holds key influential positions in the party and another suspicious of Magufuli, with deeper roots in the party. If more senior politicians die of unexplained illnesses, CCM officials who already question Magufuli’s approach—as well as those who back Magufuli but are alarmed by the virus’s devastation—could begin to turn against the president and work against his re-election. Tanzania has presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020—which Magufuli could hold or postpone depending which option he finds more favorable.

Q4: What are the opportunities for regional and international responses?

A4: The Tanzanian government is unlikely to respond to efforts attempting to influence internal politics around Covid-19—though there may be an opening for regional governments and health bodies to shift Magufuli’s policy response if they strike the right tone. To that end, EAC states and African health bodies should continue attempts to engage the president and ruling party and share information whenever possible. Critically, regional and international stakeholders should seek to protect Tanzanian changemakers—the disrupters and organizers in civil society, the political opposition, and those in positions of fame or influence—who are leading efforts against Covid-19.

  • EAC engagement. Raila Odinga told BBC Swahili that he, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame have attempted to speak to Magufuli, but with no response. Magufuli’s EAC counterparts should continue to contact the Tanzanian president, approaching him with a spirit of camaraderie, sharing lessons they have learned in their countries, and urging him to attend virtual EAC meetings on Covid-19. What happens in Tanzania does not stay in Tanzania. Political, economic, and health implications have consequences for the entire East African region, not to mention the continent and international community.
  • WHO and Africa CDC outreach. WHO and the Africa CDC should appeal to the Magufuli administration with science, urging it to learn from the virus’s devastating trajectory across Europe and the United States, pointing out policy blunders by Western leaders, and warning of similar challenges if stringent measures are not adopted. The WHO and Africa CDC should consider offering embeds to the Ministry of Health and other Tanzanian government offices to increase information sharing and help align the country’s approach with regional and continental strategies.
  • Opposition and civil society messaging. Tanzania’s political opposition, civil society, and celebrities have found themselves on the frontlines of the pandemic. Regional and international stakeholders should defend these Tanzanians’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. In addition, there is merit in subtler tactics, including reposting their social media campaigns, acknowledging their voices in news media, and contributing financially to their efforts to sustain critical public messaging and protect Tanzania’s legacy as a vibrant, open, and pluralistic society.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is a program manager with the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont

Marielle Harris