Tanzania's COVID Response Echoes South Africa's AIDS Denial | Opinion

Tanzania's autocratic President John Magufuli is determined to walk a reckless path. Since June 2020, he has consistently declared that COVID-19, which has sickened millions and cost 2.4 million lives worldwide, doesn't exist in his country.

Cases that appeared in Tanzania have been eliminated thanks to God and the country's fervent prayers, he claimed. He implored his people to pack mosques, churches and laugh off masks donations.

Magufuli's ridiculous rhetoric has been matched by bad deeds. The World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that Tanzania stopped filing its data on infections and mortality in June 2020.

Some of Tanzania's doctors this February bravely lamented that authorities are intimidating them from directly treating COVID-19 patients. Physicians must casually manage patients' pneumonia and lung problems, they are told. Tanzania's health ministry denies this.

In Tanzania dissenters usually receive swift punishments. Reporters who dare go against the grain of the official pandemic narrative get imprisoned, deported, or have their operator's license frozen.

If that isn't bad enough, this month authorities said Tanzania would reject COVID-19 vaccines. Instead, Tanzania will deploy garlic, cucumber and mint herbs concoctions to treat flare-ups to create its own fantasy version of herd immunity.

Magufuli's expediency could stir calamity.

On February 10, the U.S. embassy in Tanzania sounded an alarm that they are aware of a "significant rise" of COVD cases in Tanzania since January 2021. Understandably, Tanzania's doctors fear secret police visits if they speak openly, but some religious leaders are a bit more forthcoming.

This month Father Charles Kitima, secretary of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, revealed that his church witnessed a striking, sharp rise in funerals.

"Usually there would be one or two requiem masses per week in urban parishes, but now we are conducting masses daily," he told the BBC.

There is no prize for guessing that Magufuli is on a quest to hide reality.

His bizarre denial echoes the disastrous mistakes of Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's former president, who between 2005 and 2008 famously denied the existence of HIV and AIDS.

Mbeki's insanity saw his government delay the rollout of an antiretroviral (ARV) drug; he claimed lifesaving medicines were poisonous and a ploy by the West to degrade South Africa.

He froze state support for clinics that started to issue the AZT HIV drug to prevent mother-to-child transmission; he kicked back the use of a pharmaceutical company's donated supply of nevirapine HIV medication, a superior drug that protects newborns from catching HIV.

Tanzania President John Magufuli
A woman walks past an election billboard of Tanzania President John Magufuli. Daniel Hayduk/AFP via Getty Images

As a replacement, Mbeki's health aide, a trained physician, parroted a whacky solution that South African citizens eat garlic and turmeric as a treatment for HIV and shun-proven ARV pills. About 300, 000 preventable AIDS deaths followed, according to a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In Tanzania, Magufuli's experiment resembles South Africa's deplorable flirt with AIDS denial.

But he can still be reined in. There's still hope, albeit slim.

The African Union leaders, the influential diplomatic council made up of Africa's 55 heads of state, must make it clear that Tanzania could be isolated by air, trade and immigration if its leaders continue to recklessly deny the reality of the coronavirus or join plans for vaccines.

Magufuli has shown that he is immune to the rebuke of the "imperial" U.S. or Europe. Only the chastisement of his peers in Africa and China can unyoke his stubbornness. Stop him, don't lobby him.

It is in the clinical and financial interest of the Africa Union's leaders to counsel Tanzania's wayward president. The rest of Africa is actively buying and airlifting vaccines under the global COVAX treaty, which aims to deliver 600 million doses in 2021 and inoculate 20 percent of Africans.

Outliers like Tanzania will scuttle Africa's herd immunity.

"The danger of Magufuli's denial for Tanzania is it may bring long-term comorbidities. The infection is mutating into multiple variants; Tanzania may become the new 'Wuhan,'" said Stanley Samusodza, physician, biologist and independent public health observer in the region.

Magufuli should be told in strict language that Tanzania's unvaccinated citizens could cross-infect a whole East Africa region. After all, Tanzania's Dar es Salam port is one of Africa's busiest for cargo and human traffic.

There seems to be some diplomatic nudging in this direction as WHO's Regional Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti in January publicly exhorted that: "We are re-initiating communication at the highest level of leadership" in Tanzania. She is seeking the government's collaboration "for the sake of the people of the country and neighboring countries, as well as for the sake of the world."

Ultimately, the biggest asset to reset Tanzania's leaders onto a sober path is the country's fearless doctors. Tanzania's physicians, supported by civil society, must be encouraged to defy the president's nonsense and accurately, privately and safely record what they are seeing in hospitals. All open-data, however messy, anonymous and uncoordinated, is still precious data.

In Tanzania, Magufuli's cavalier behavior is frankly wrong. It must worry the rest of Africa and the world.

Ray Mwareya is a media fellow of the HIV Research for Prevention and delegate to the tenth International Aids Conference. Twitter: @rmwareya.

Nyasha Bhobo is an independent writer and rights advocate.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.