Is Magufuli onto something or caught up in shadow-chasing conspiracy theories?

Wednesday May 06 2020

Few people divide opinion as much as Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli. To supporters, he is an unconventional outsider bulldozing his way through the establishment and fighting for the rights and prosperity of the downtrodden. A poor man’s freedom fighter, so to speak.
To critics, it is all a façade to mask a thin skin, a lack of patience and a deep-seated dictatorial streak.

Tanzania’s response to the current pandemic has brought into sharp focus, once again, the unconventional ways of the country’s leader. While countries across the region were locking down populations to stop the spread of the disease, President Magufuli said he would not lock down Tanzania.

As a result, social media platforms have been buzzing with bustling sights and sounds of the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, by day, followed by night-time videos of what are alleged secret burials of people who have succumbed to the coronavirus disease.
It is hard to verify the claims, seeing as the government there keeps the media and public opinion on a very short leash. Punishment for coverage or public debate of sensitive matters considered inaccurate or undesirable by those in power is often swift and heavy.

Thus, it is really hard to know the extent of the problem in the country beyond the official version of events. What we know, however, is that many truck drivers turning up to cross into Uganda at the Mutukula border have been testing positive for the virus. A similar thing has been happening at Malaba, with truck drivers from Kenya.
As we saw at the start of the HIV/Aids pandemic almost four decades ago, truck drivers are the canaries in the coal mines; if they test positive then a significant part of the population is also positive, or will soon be.

This difference is that while officials in one country admit they have a problem and have locked down, those in another say it is all much ado about nothing. This week President Magufuli threw a spanner in the works by revealing a clever hack he and his intelligence team had played on the country’s main testing laboratory.
Tired of the rising number of positive cases from the lab, the sleuths gathered samples from all manner of living and non-living things – goats, sheep, pawpaws, even engine oil – and sent it in disguised as coming off humans.

President Magufuli then announced, in a televised speech to his subjects, that some of the samples had tested positive. His critics, and enemies of the country’s progress, he added, could be sabotaging his administration, ostensibly to undermine his re-election bid in October.
That this revelation came, not from a leja leja president with a lower second degree but from one with a PhD in chemistry, made it even more stunning and fed into the wider conspiracy theories about the disease. Could there be a smoking gun or is it all smoke and mirrors?


So how can engine oil test positive for coronavirus? Experts say this could be due to contamination of samples during extraction, transportation or storage. It could also be faulty testing kits, and there have been many of those flying around.
Your columnist is not an epidemiologist and grimaces with painful memories of secondary school laboratory experiments gone wrong.
But even non-scientists should be able to see the logical flaw in this sneaky experiment.

These kinds of tests are usually set up to detect the presence or absence of something, not to identify the sample.
If you put a slide containing a blood sample under a microscope, you should be able to see whether there are malaria parasites or not. If you replace that slide with another containing engine oil, you might see things that look like malaria parasites or not. Whatever it is, the microscope does not announce to you, in a stainless-steel voice, that, “This, you idiot, is Shell Helix Ultra, not human blood!”

A test with a binary outcome – positive or negative – will always give you either of the outcomes, whether the sample is from a pawpaw or a pancreas. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. It would be unfortunate if folks were to believe the results of these flawed tests to mean there is no problem.
We can debate the merits of various interventions, including whether to lock down and flatten the curve, or bet on herd immunity developing but this is the time to trust the science and evidence from elsewhere.
The labs in Dar might be faulty, but Tanzanian truck drivers are turning up positive in Mutukula.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fight.