Magufuli confronts COVID-19 with prayer and snake oil

2020-05-08

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a test of fire for African leaders. Some, like South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, have been tempered. Others are going up in smoke. None more so perhaps than Tanzania’s President John Magufuli whose handling of the pandemic has been simply bizarre.

Last week when the count from his health officials had reached 480 infections and 16 deaths – not especially high figures – Magufuli announced that the statistics were fake and blamed them on ‘imperialist sabotage.’ He stopped officials from releasing further results, suspended the director and another senior official of the national health laboratory, and instituted an investigation into its handling of the pandemic this week.

Magufuli claimed that he had sent specimens of random animals and plants to the laboratory for testing and all had tested positive. This proved, to himself at least, that the laboratory tests were completely unreliable.

His officials had conducted only 652 tests for the virus, but the number of confirmed cases had jumped 60% in the week to last Wednesday (29 April). This, experts were reported as saying, was mainly because the limited testing had been focused on those displaying the worst symptoms.

In the absence of a coherent COVID-19 policy, Tanzania is awash with rumour and conjecture

Even before he stopped publication of results, Magufuli had placed his faith in God rather than science. He introduced no real measures to enforce social distancing, advocating instead an intensification of national prayers, proclaiming that the coronavirus ‘cannot survive in the body of Christ.’

And then, swapping his religious cap for a traditionalist one, he announced he was despatching a plane to fetch a consignment of Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina’s herbal potion miracle cure, Covid Organics (CVO). The leaders of Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Comoros and the Republic of the Congo have also reportedly placed orders. Rajoelina touted his potion to a meeting last week of the African Union (AU) Bureau with heads of regional economic communities, which Ramaphosa chaired.

This has created the impression – on social media at least – that the AU has endorsed Rajoelina’s alleged remedy. Ramaphosa’s office has denied that and this week the AU Commission announced that it had called in Madagascar’s ambassador to Addis Ababa to quiz him about CVO.

The herbal remedy is based on the herb Artemisia which has some proven efficacy in combating malaria but not the coronavirus. The AU has said that its Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention would review the safety and efficacy of the ‘tonic’ scientifically.

In the absence of a coherent and transparent policy for fighting COVID-19, Tanzania is awash with rumour and conjecture. Some put the real death toll at hundreds. Three mysterious and unexplained deaths of Members of Parliament (MPs) over the past few weeks – including that of a cabinet minister – have widely been ascribed to COVID-19.

Tanzania’s opposition party considers the pandemic and government’s response a national crisis

After failing to persuade the government to shut down Parliament and test all MPs as a result, opposition MPs are now boycotting it. Zitto Kabwe, leader of opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendo, told ISS Today that his party considered the pandemic and the government’s ‘lacklustre response’ – especially compared to Tanzania’s neighbours – ‘a national crisis’.

‘There is a clear lack of transparency regarding data, the response is uncoordinated and lacking leadership from the executive and important measures such as closing borders, restricting movements and congregations of people have not been implemented to date.’

Is this just bizarre or is there a more rational explanation for Magufuli’s behaviour? Fatma Karume, ex-president of the Tanganyika Law Society, thinks the government’s response flows from the fact that it initially adopted the wrong strategy for dealing with the coronavirus which was based on its earlier response to Ebola.

‘But the two are quite different viruses,’ she explained, particularly in that the coronavirus is far more contagious and therefore requires wider social distancing measures. She recalls how Health Minister Ummy Mwalimu recently ‘giggled hysterically’ on TV when she admitted that if the coronavirus spread through the community, government would be unable to control it. ‘Now that’s happened and they just don’t have a plan to deal with that,’ she said. ‘Since then it’s just been a circus.’

How will all of this affect Magufuli’s chances of re-election come October? Kabwe said he was sure the impact would be negative. ‘To what extent depends on whether he will continue with the poor response or change tack.’

COVID-19 doesn’t respect borders or sensitivities about national sovereignty; nor should the AU

However other analysts believe that Tanzania’s robust economy, bolstered by strong government spending on infrastructure and mineral exports, will help Magufuli win again. They note anyway that the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party has never failed to win an election.

And maybe there won’t even be an election in October. Karume suspects that precisely because of Magufuli’s poor handling of the pandemic, it will still very much be with Tanzania in October and the elections will be postponed.

Should the AU intervene? Through its Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention especially, it has so far acquitted itself well in the pandemic. It has put out reliable guidance and advice, conducted training for the needier member states in testing, tracing and other counter-measures, and has acquired and distributed essential equipment, also favouring weaker states.

The Tanzanian government is clearly squandering much of this good input, to the detriment of its people. This week the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights sent a letter ‘of urgent appeal’ to Tanzania ‘regarding the rights of people in Tanzania to the protection of their health and life and for having access to public health information’ about the pandemic.

That was a good start. But if it receives no response, the AU should take this up at a higher level. COVID-19 does not respect political borders nor sensitivities about national sovereignty. Nor should the AU.  

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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