Tanzania’s new president opts for science to combat COVID-19

By Verenardo Meeme

April 26, 2021

In a stark departure from her predecessor, Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan has indicated her government will adopt a science-based COVID-19 policy.

President Suluhu will form a special committee of public health and medical experts to advise the government on a COVID response. She indicated that her government would take a global perspective in dealing with the pandemic and rely on the outcome of research findings from the task force. By contrast, her predecessor, the late John Magufuli, had issued public statements of denial about the pandemic.

‘‘We cannot separate ourselves from other countries like an island and we can’t accept everything that is brought in without conducting our own local research to have an authoritative take on the subject. We are reading about COVID-19 worldwide, but when it comes to Tanzania, it is blank. We do not seem to know what is happening,’’ President Suluhu admitted to her cabinet.

She said Tanzania needs to take a position supported with scientific evidence and not blindly reject or accept whatever is propagated by outsiders.

‘‘On the issue of COVID-19, I intend to form an experts committee to look at the issue deeply. They will need to look at remedies that we have been told would help. The team of experts should look at all aspects of the disease widely then advise us as the government,’’ she said during a ministers’ inauguration ceremony in the capital Dar es Salaam.

‘‘It is not right to keep quiet about it, either to accept without experts conducting research and analyzing it. We will allow the experts to tell us their independent thoughts of the issue, and also tell us what is being proposed worldwide to come to us as we hear what our local experts are saying. We will do that on the COVID issue.”

Asserting that she is firmly in-charge, President Suluhu assured Tanzanians that she would continue to implement Magufuli’s vision for the country’s development but indicated that she would do so while simultaneously charting a more pragmatic course.

Though her administration’s strategy is still taking shape, her pronouncement on COVID-19 and the formation of a committee of experts on COVID-19 for a scientifically informed approach indicates a major shift in policy from Magufuli’s era.

Magufuli died on March 17 amid mounting speculation on his health after weeks of absence from public view. Top government officials, including the vice-president of Zanzibar and the chief secretary, had earlier died of suspected COVID-related complications. While the rest of the world was implementing stringent measures, including nationwide lockdowns, wearing masks and social distancing, Magufuli took none of these measures and refused to purchase vaccines. He claimed last June that Tanzania had defeated COVID-19 through prayer and faith-healing.

Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general, and Dr, Matshidiso Moeti, WHO director for the African region, issued a condolence message in which they urged Tanzania to scale public health measures against COVID-19, prepare for vaccinations and share data in light of reports of COVID-19 cases among travelers.

Decrying the lack of information on measures Tanzania was taking to respond to the pandemic, WHO called on the authorities to report COVID-19 cases, share data and implement public health measures that work in breaking the chain of transmission to protect its own and the global population.

Tanzania has not published any details of its COVID infections since last May, when WHO reported 509 cases and related deaths. Under Tanzania’s 2019 Statistics Act, no independent body outside government may announce figures on the pandemic. To date, there have been no official figures on caseloads, deaths, hospitalizations and recoveries in Tanzania, unlike neighboring Kenya, with whom its engaged in showdowns at the borders over customs, testing, truckers and air travel.

It remains to be seen whether President Suluhu can reset the clock on COVID-19 in Tanzania, as doing so would require balancing public health and financial considerations.

Tanzania’s celebrated economic growth over the past five years has been attributed to Magufuli’s stringent anti-corruption stance and a highly successful socio-economic development track-record that has seen the country achieve milestones in the mining sector and outstanding infrastructure growth.

As she consolidates her leadership style and steers the country along a less authoritarian platform that was the hallmark of her predecessor’s rule, President Suluhu must be conscious that stringent measures such as a hard lockdown would directly affects citizens, particularly informal traders.

Strict COVID-19 measures would lead to a slowdown, with the potential for a political backlash. Magufuli had openly denied the existence COVID-19 but admitted at the later stages of his life that there could be cases of COVID-19 in Tanzania, asking citizens to pray a few weeks before his death.

Reacting to President Suluhu’s pronouncement, Tanzania Public Health Association Chairperson Dr. Philbert Nyinondi said her decision to form an expert committee on COVID19 in the local context was highly expected. “Her order for a review of the national approach and the study of the pros and cons of globally recommended measures reflects her record as a pro-science and pro-evidence leader. With experts analyzing the issue,” he stated, “the concerns about vaccines, statistics on the prevalence of COVID-19 and international political aspects will be resolved. Principally, the government’s decision will depend on the merits of the scientific evidence.”

In February 2021, the association issued a public statement urging the scientific community to work with the government to study the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the market, instead of taking an anti-vaccine position.

‘‘We consider that Tanzania is part of the global community and has a role to play in the arena of global health security. We are confident President Suluhu will take a stance in the best interest of the country,’’ Nyinondi added. ‘‘For the public to accept vaccines, we need awareness campaigns. Health professional associations need to do much more to ensure public support for vaccination and support the president’s decisions. The solutions are embedded in persistent public education on science and its products,” he explained.

The association has advised the government to adhere to directives provided by the WHO. The agency’s COVID-19 guidelines have been implemented worldwide to combat the virus, including acceptance and use of vaccines.

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