If there are signs that Tanzania’s new president will change her country’s Covid-19 policy, it does not include the nomination of a new Minister for Health. Because Dorothy Gwajima, the woman behind the country’s controversial steaming booths in the fight against Corona, is still in office.
The Tanzanian government, with endorsement by the late President John Magufuli, advised its citizens to inhale steam which would melt the coronavirus because they live in the nose.
According to an advisory published by the Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical research journal steaming, used in the fight against the Common Cold, has no supporting evidence it can cure or prevent Covid-19.
President Suluhu might also face same questions, when it comes to regional cooperation in the fight against Covid-19. Neighbouring countries have suffered consequences of Tanzania’s laxity to control the spread of Covid-19.
On April 2,2021, the government of the United Kingdom added Kenya on its Red List, a group of countries, from where travelers will not be allowed into the UK on Covid-19 grounds.
Kenya retaliated two days later with its own restrictions against travelers from the UK. It means that passenger flights between the countries were terminated/ stopped from April 9.
Tanzania is seen as the driving force behind the diplomatic stand-off between Kenya and the UK. In a notice to the public, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) suggested there had been “significant” cases of a new variant of Covid-19 among travelers transiting through or travelling from Kenya to the UK.
That variant, known as B.1.351, was initially found in South Africa, but Tanzania’s laxity and the continued open borders with Kenya mean more of the cases in Tanzania might have escaped into Kenya.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says a number of Tanzanian travellers have tested positive for Covid-19, although the global health Organisation did not immediately discern which of the variants have been common.
“This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and protect populations in these countries and beyond,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom in an earlier media statement.
So far, there is no indication that the South African variant of Covid-19 has increased in numbers, nor has the Kenyan government clarified, whether those cases determined so far are from Tanzania.
“Disease Infested Zones”
Kenya, however, has been facing a third wave of Covid-19 in March and early April 2021. Figures showed, the country was reporting an average of 15 deaths a day, forcing President Uhuru Kenyatta to impose a lockdown on Nairobi and four other counties next to it in what is known as the “Disease Infested Zone“.
If Tanzanians are behind any surge of cases in Kenya, it may mean the two countries are victims of their open borders. But it is Tanzania, which has not enforced most of the health protocols present in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda; three of the countries that share a border with Tanzania and belong to the East African Community bloc.
The borders between Tanzania and Kenya have remained open since September 2020, but since then, a series of tit-for-tat decisions on Covid-19 control have caused a gap in collaboration.
When Kenya demanded that Tanzanian truck drivers test for Covid-19 before entry, Tanzania responded by banning both Kenyan trucks and flights.
Dar es Salaam lifted the ban only after Kenya agreed to relax its own policy. Yet Tanzania’s stance on Covid-19 remains undefined, weeks after the late President John Pombe Magufuli was declared dead .
The current President, Samia Suluhu, who was Magufuli’s Vice-President since 2015, hasn’t made it clear, whether the country will follow the rest of the world in instituting public safety guidelines.
No change of behavior
In fact, in several of her public appearances as the new head of state, including during the funeral of Magufuli , she appeared without a mask and did not follow the specified physical distancing; two crucial preventive behavioural suggestions from the WHO.
Whether she will depart from her predecessor’s controversial stance on Covid-19 is be yet to be seen. Critics of Magufuli often pointed to his stance as a result of poor or no policy on combating the pandemic.
The late Magufuli had a science background, having worked as an industrial chemist, but lived his final years in controversy and was nicknamed “Covid-19 denialism”.
Until his death was announced on March 17, Tanzanian authorities stopped providing data on new infections, deaths or recoveries. In February, the World Health Organisation was alarmed when the former President refused Covid-19 vaccines, warning they were very “dangerous” and needed a deep study by local scientists.
No data from Tanzania
“This situation remains very concerning. I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting COVID-19 cases and share data,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros stated.
“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.”
Last year, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tanzania kept off most East African Community (EAC) meetings on discussing strategies of response.
One joint communique called for the sharing of information, and collaboration to ease the flow of goods across borders. But Tanzania and Burundi, another EAC member, kept off.
Weeks after the death of Magufuli, however, some observers think a change of mind will most likely emerge from Tanzanians themselves. Especially, when they realize that East African neighbours are opening business channels, instead of interfering with each other’s affairs.
“The biggest challenger for Tanzania is that, from now, we will have to fight the Coronavirus, whether we like it or not”, argued Tanzanian lawyer Fatma Karume on April 5. “We must stop deceiving each other. Covid-19 exists [here] and it kills.”
No freedom of expression
A former President of the Tanganyika Law Society, she was disbarred in September 2020, being accused of practising “political activism”, including her critical stance on the country’s Covid-19 policy.
There is an indication that even those, who sided with Magufuli’s controversial stance, are changing their views. Hamis Kigwangalla, a former Minister in Magufuli’s first term, said on April 5, he had seen new scientific evidence that indicated certain measures were necessary, to protect the country’s economy.
“In science, you can change or better your stand as long as new information emerges. That is how scientists are able to better research and discover new things,” he argued.
“For us to get back to normalcy, where there is no fear of new infections or deaths, and so that more tourists can come like in the past, we must have ‘herd immunity’, and one way of attaining that is through vaccination”, Kigwangalla added.
Fall in tourism
Tanzania received less than a quarter of annual tourists in 2020, according to information provided by the Ministry of Tourism. And Kigwangalla had demanded an end to steaming booths, a controversial therapy promoted by Magufuli to fight Covid-19, terming them embarrassing sights.
“There should be no shame, if any Tanzanian dies from Covid-19. It should not be a stain on the individuals or their families,” advised Khamis Kagasheki, a former Minister in the Jakaya Kikwete government between 2005 and 2015.
“Covid-19 brings with it a tough test. Wear a mask, wash your hands in running water, avoid crowded places, do exercises and so on. God will protect those who protect themselves.”
Kagasheki took to social media to push through safety campaigns. But he is not the only one. Prof Mark Mwandosya, another former Minister in Tanzania, recovered from Covid-19 in March 2021, after hospitalisation in Nairobi.
“How I was able to catch the disease at my far flung village of Lufilyo, Busekelo in Mbeya Region, despite my strict observation of health protocols, shows how elusive the Coronavirus can be,” he wrote on twitter on April 5.
“No one in the world is safe until all of us are safe. I humbly pray that, if possible, no other compatriot of mine should suffer the debilitating effects of this disease. Frankly, I would never wish it upon even my worst enemy”, Kagasheki added.
For now, however, it remains a campaign led by individuals, rather than a national policy. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) list both Kenya and Tanzania on a threat Level Four for Covid-19, the highest advisory against travelling to a country. Uganda is listed on a lower level, advising US nationals to “reconsider travel to Uganda due to Covid-19.”
On April 5, a spokesperson at Muhumbili National Referral Hospital in Dar es Salaam indicated the controversial steaming booths will remain in place .
What journalists should do:
- Cover stories on loopholes at the borders of Tanzania and other countries that might increase the spread of Covid-19.
- Report on policy changes by the new Tanzanian administration.
- Report on Covid-19 situation in both Kenya and Tanzania. Follow up on the numbers of infections, recoveries and deaths