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Tanzania's Magufuli and the herd immunity debate


Tanzania has since claimed a unique position as far as tackling Covid-19 pandemic is concerned. President John Pombe Magufuli, nicknamed bulldozer, due to his style of leadership, largely viewed as autocratic is increasingly becoming the face of resistance to lockdowns on the continent. There have been numerous criticisms leveled against him with the viability of his chosen approach coming under intense scrutiny.  

Amid intense criticism, Magufuli has termed Coronavirus the work of Satan and called upon Tanzanians to pray for divine intervention. When other countries were racing to impose various restrictions, including banning gatherings, as a way to curb the spread of Coronavirus, Magufuli called on Tanzanians to flock religious centers and pray for God’s healing. Magufuli equally refused to lockdown the economy, encouraging Tanzanians to ‘chapa kazi’ (work hard). In fact, he has lately said that he intends to lift the minimal restrictions that Tanzania ever put in place such as closure of schools as he intends to open colleges, sporting activities and allow tourists to visit his country.

His strong stance against lockdown and assertion that ‘Tanzania’s economy is more important than Coronavirus have seen him criticized for putting the economy ahead of the health of his people. Furthermore, his perceived naïve inclination to divine interventions and suggestions of simplistic solutions such as ‘kujivukizia’ (steam inhalation) and drinking of lemons as remedial to Coronavirus, as well as, blaming the rise of cases on faulty testing kits, have earned him the tag ‘Trump of Africa’. In fact, Magufuli has since claimed that his own child contracted the virus and has since recovered thanks to home remedies such as drinking of hot ginger and lemon as well as exercising. 

Whether one agrees with him or not and whether Magufuli is right or wrong, is difficult to tell. The bottom line is that Magufuli has largely allowed Tanzania to operate as near-normal as possible. There were far fewer measures taken by the government of Tanzania compared to its neighbors. They included shutdown of schools and ban on international travel. But, as I have mentioned already, Magufuli has since said that he will be reopening schools as from June 1 and ease the few other restrictions that he had earlier put in place. It is such decisions that make Tanzania to stand out as one of the African countries that seem to have taken the herd immunity route in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whether or not approaches such as those taken by Tanzania are succeeding is certainly open to debate. Certainly, the effectiveness and outcomes of this approach are yet to be known. If they were to succeed, then countries like Tanzania will arguably emerge as the real victors in the fight against Coronavirus pandemic. Partly because they will have refused to allow fear to triumph. The pandemic will equally have not destroyed such countries’ economies, as it will have others. Furthermore, while a lot of people around the world, including in well-established democracies, are reeling from severe restrictions in the enjoyment of their basic freedoms and rights, countries like Tanzania, although seen to be increasingly authoritarian, will go down the history lane as the ones that actually safeguarded the freedoms and rights of their people during the pandemic.

It is way too early to claim that herd immunity, as embraced by Tanzania and others, will ultimately carry the day. The strongest indication yet that it could be the case is that majority of the people testing positive for Coronavirus, particularly here in Africa are symptomatic. In Kenya, for instance, it has been reported that 7 out of 10 Covid-19 cases are asymptomatic. The situation is the same in Tanzania. There are claims that Tanzania is undertesting and underreporting the impact of Covid-19.  For example, the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam, has warned of the risk of exponential growth of Covid-19 cases in Tanzania. Equally, it has been reported that Tanzania is concealing the truth regarding the actual situation, with claims of secret night burials. While such may be the case, it is equally true that we have not witnessed mass deaths in Tanzania. Having been keenly observing what has been going on here in East Africa, I would say – perhaps controversially so – that I do not yet see any significant difference between Tanzania and Kenya as far as the effects of Covid-19 are concerned. Government of Kenya too is carrying out night burials of Covid-19 victims. Yet Tanzania has largely refused to take any drastic measures and Kenya is on a countrywide curfew and regional lockdowns.

One may validly argue that the government of Tanzania could be concealing the truth. But one also wonders just how much and for how long can government of Tanzania hide things like mass deaths during this age of information. It is therefore, persuasive to argue that there aren’t massive deaths in Tanzania yet even though its leader has rejected both internal and external pressure to impose certain measures to address the spread of Coronavirus. At least, not yet. Meaning that majority of those that have contracted Coronavirus are actually asymptomatic. The case in point is the 53 Tanzanian truck drivers who tested positive for Coronavirus having been tested by Kenyan authorities at the border. I mean, these people were driving trucks for hundreds of kilometers and never exhibited any symptom of Covid-19. Neither did they complain of any ailment. They were just fine and going about their business. The question that then remains is whether herd immunity will work in places like Tanzania. And to this, only time will tell. 

Tanzania's Magufuli and the herd immunity debate Tanzania's Magufuli and the herd immunity debate Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 24, 2020 Rating: 5

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