Tanzania’s Magufuli and his anti-science fantasy

Dear Tingasiga;  
My relative who lives in Tanzania is recovering from a very severe acute illness whose symptoms and signs are very similar to those of Covid-19.

 Whereas her Tanzanian doctors have not mentioned her diagnosis, Kamacunda (not her real name), has been treated with the standard drug combination that is offered to patients with Covid-19. 

Kamacunda has been very impressed by the Tanzanian healthcare team’s professionalism. 

 They have not held back on medicines and other treatments and monitoring measures that give patients opportunities for recovery from this potentially serious illness. They have taken the standard personal protection precautions of teams treating Covid-19 patients in other countries.

Another member of Kamacunda’s  household is also fighting a similar illness. Having seen many residents of her city, including her best friend, die from an acute Covid-like illness, Kamacunda has every reason to worry. The situation in Tanzania seems to be more dire than has been acknowledged by the international health authorities.

 Clearly, we do not know the exact nature of Kamacunda’s illness. Without testing, we cannot be certain about the diagnosis. 

Tanzania abandoned testing for the new coronavirus eight months ago, after President John Pombe Magufuli declared his country to be free of Covid-19.  The virus was eliminated by Divine intervention, triggered by citizens’ prayers and fasting, the President assured the world. 

Between March 16, 2020 and April 29, 2020, Tanzania reported 509 cases, 21 of whom died. Since then, the country has officially not had any new cases. 

Instead, President Magufuli and his team have forced Tanzanians to engage in very reckless behaviours that have provided perfect opportunities for the spread of the new coronavirus.

 Face masks and physical distancing  have been discouraged. Inhaling steam has been encouraged. Vaccination has been declared dangerous. Untested herbal therapies have been promoted. 

This was dramatically endorsed recently by Tanzania’s Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima, a medical doctor, who drank a concoction of lemon, ginger and garlic, followed by inhalation of steam from herbs. This was said to be a potent means of killing the virus. 

Meanwhile, a lawyer in Dar-es-Salaam has told me that he knows many people who have acquired a Covid-like illness. Some have died. Another knowledgeable friend in Tanzania has told me that the country may well have a bigger Covid-19 burden than its neighbours to the north. 

Consider these figures, as of February 14, 2021, from the countries that share a border with Tanzania: Mozambique with a population of 30 million had reported 48,588 cases, with 514 deaths. 

Malawi with a population of 19 million had reported 28,876 cases, with 937 deaths. Zambia with a population of 18 million had reported 68,454 cases, with 940 deaths. 

Congo Free State with a population of 87 million had reported 24,239 cases, with 692 deaths. Burundi with a population of 12 million had reported 1,824 cases and 3 deaths. 

Rwanda with a population of 13 million had reported 17,267 cases, with 236 deaths. Uganda with a population of 47 million had reported 40,019 cases, with 328 deaths. Kenya with a population of 55 million had reported 102,792 cases, with 1,795 deaths.  

It is highly likely that all these countries, with limited resources for testing and contact tracing, are underestimating the extent of the pandemic in their territories.

 The worldwide cases have already exceeded 108 million and counting, with more than 2.4 ,million deaths. That Tanzania, with a population of 61.5 million, could have been spared is inconceivable. 

After all, hundreds of millions of people elsewhere have been in as much earnest prayer, supplication and fasting as their Tanzanian brethren. That God of all humanity would have had selective hearing in favour of Tanzanians is unlikely to be true.

What is more likely is that Tanzania is held at ransom by an educated ruler who has inexplicably parted company with science and evidence. Magufuli has embraced fantasy and conspiracy theories with no evident benefit to him or his countrymen. 

He has threatened the professional and fiscal livelihoods of doctors and others who dare to speak the truth about coronavirus in Tanzania. Above all, he has endangered the lives of millions in a manner that is not that different from other dictators’ abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, had Magufuli sent his armed men to arrest, kidnap or kill his political opponents, the leaders of the older democracies would have voiced their grave concern. They would have even considered sanctions and other punitive measures against his regime.  

However, endangering people’s rights to health and life appears to provoke little interest among the usual defenders of global human rights. 

Which raises a few questions. Do Tanzania’s immediate neighbours have an interest in minimising the cross-border risk to their own citizens? What are the obligations of organisations such as the East African Community, the African Union and the United Nations to the people of Tanzania? 

Does the world have a duty to intervene when a government of a sovereign State abdicates its duty to protect the citizens? Do countries like Canada, USA, Britain, Sweden and Germany have a moral responsibility to the citizens of Tanzania? 

Realistically, how, in today’s world of diplomatic niceties and the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, can foreigners attempt to save Tanzanians from their ruler’s harmful agenda? 

I am not holding my breath that the outside world will stand with the people of Tanzania. The silent pandemic lacks the dramatic display of violence that tends to trigger angry reactions of foreigners. 

Tanzanians will likely continue to be left to their fate at the hands of a ruler who captured our imagination as a breath of fresh air when he assumed power in 2015. 

The honeymoon was short-lived. The autocrat that he is became rapidly manifest. However, never in my wildest imaginations did I think that Dr John Pombe Magufuli, MSc, PhD (Chemistry), would become the champion of anti-science. To say he is an enigma is a supreme understatement.
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