In Tanzania, full-throttle COVID-19 denial leaves citizens without access to public health information

A man looks at his mobile phone in Tanzania, December 9, 2018. Photo by Riaz Jahanpour, for USAID Tanzania / Digital Development Communications via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The novel coronavirus was first reported in Tanzania in mid-March 2020, but, after recording up to 509 cases and 21 deaths in late April, the nation announced its status as “coronavirus-free” in June.

That same month, Kassim Majaliwa, the country’s prime minister, told parliament there are only 66 active coronavirus cases in the country, but did not provide further details.

Since then, government has been silent on the coronavirus with a strong politic of denial and no data released to the public on infections or deaths.

Today, most activities continue business-as-usual, including Tanzania's tourism industry, attracting thousands of visitors to its airports with few public health protocols in place.

The airport in Zanzibar received the lowest 2-star rating on COVID-19 health and safety measures by Skytrax COVID-19 Airport Safety Rating, the world’s only assessment and certification of airport health and safety measures during the pandemic. According to their report, “new cases of the South African virus variant were confirmed in two travelers flying into Denmark on January 19, from Tanzania.”

The highly anticipated annual African music festival, Sauti za Busara, will take place in mid-February in Zanzibar, with support from the European Union in Tanzania and several European embassies, despite the risk of highly contagious new coronavirus variants circulating in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.

On January 24, the Catholic Archdiocese of Arusha issued a letter warning congregants of the existence of COVID-19 in Tanzania, and urged members to follow all necessary public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus in churches.

While Tanzania’s recorded cases are moderate compared to other countries, the government’s silence about COVID-19 data raised grave concerns among public health experts and human rights activists, who are forbidden from speaking or talking about COVID-19 in digital spaces.

The country updated its 2018 Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations in July, prohibiting any “content with information with regard to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious disease in the country or elsewhere without the approval of the respective authorities.”

Despite initial restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, schools, colleges, offices and other social activities are back to normal, even as the virus continues to spread in the region.

President John Magufuli had cast doubt on the credibility of laboratory equipment and technicians after secret tests allegedly performed on papaya and a goat gave positive test results. The president said releasing this data was causing unnecessary panic and soon after, fired Nyambura Moremi, director of the national health laboratory, for allegedly botching the testing results. The ministerial COVID-19 information team was dissolved.

In June, Magufuli thanked God for eradicating the virus from Tanzania, following three days of national prayer. He made this announcement publicly during a Sunday service, amidst a praising congregation, making claims that God had answered their prayers. He also praised congregants for not wearing face masks, despite calls from the World Health Organization to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his tough anti-corruption stance, was reelected for a second time in October 2020 during an election that was highly criticized for stifling dissent and opposition.

Just before the elections, Tanzanians experienced an internet shutdown with access denied to all the major social media platforms including Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter. To date, many Tanzanians cannot access Twitter without using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Over the last five years, the Magufuli administration has narrowed democratic and civic spaces and has cracked down hard on freedom of expression and access to information in digital spaces.

With the government’s strong denial stance, Tanzanians are not allowed to release any COVID-19 data that the government has not verified, which means that ordinary citizens as well as journalists and medical professionals are barred from commenting on COVID-19 in digital spaces, or accessing information.

Access to COVID-19 information has become an “elite privilege,” according to one doctor from the national hospital who spoke to Global Voices on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.

Unlike other countries with established COVID-19 information response teams who give daily updates on COVID-19, Tanzania simply offers a website with limited and outdated COVID-19 information.

The denial has been so convincing that it’s now widely accepted by Tanzanians, including medical experts, who disregard basic safety measures like wearing face masks and social distancing.

Global Voices visited major hospitals such Muhimbili, the government referral hospital in Dar es Salaam, the cultural capital, as well as Benjamin Mkapa Hospital in Dodoma, the political capital, and witnessed very few measures taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease.

People are allowed to enter hospital premises without wearing masks, there are few working hygiene and washing facilities and those that do exist lack water or are broken, which was witnessed, for example, in the pregnant mothers’ clinic at Muhimbili.

While the Magufuli administration has shown little concern about the impact of the virus on everyday citizens, many government ministries and departments acknowledge that COVID-19 still exists.

Tanzania's minister of finance urges ministry staff to take all precautions against the coronavirus, while also saying COVID-19 is not an issue in Tanzania. Screenshot from Mwananchi newspaper.

For example, when Magufuli was sworn in for the second time last year, authorities did practice COVID-19 prevention measures, requiring all attendees to have their temperatures taken and wash their hands at hygiene stations with hand sanitizer provided.

On January 25, Tanzania's Minister of Finance Dr. Philip Mpango urged his staff to take precautions against COVID-19 while at the same denying its existence in Tanzania, during a meeting in Dodoma, the capital.

Most in-country experts are afraid to speak up, fearing retaliation.

Global Voices spoke with one medical expert who believed Tanzania may be experiencing a second wave of the outbreak but that this information was kept secret from the public. The expert did not want to be named, fearing reprisal.

Another medical expert told Global Voices under the conditions of anonymity that people must know their COVID-19 status so that they can take measures to prevent its spread in their communities. He said that leaving people uninformed makes their job very difficult and hopes that all Tanzanians will try to protect themselves by taking all precautions advised by WHO. He told Global Voices:

Politicians have taken over the whole COVID[-19] issue and they are playing a dangerous game, but when people will start dying they will start sacking medical staff.

Another doctor who spoke to Global Voices anonymously said that although there is some hope in getting a vaccine, Tanzania’s denial may slow down access to it, as the government has not taken any steps to acquire it on the global market, opting instead to invest in herbal remedies.

In December 2020, Health Minister spokesman Gerald Chamii cast doubt on global vaccines, telling the East African:

It takes not less than six months to find a vaccine or cure for a certain disease. We have fared on our own since the pandemic spread, I am not sure if it is wise to have a vaccine imported and distributed to the citizens without undertaking clinical testing to approve if it is safe for our people.

Access to information is essential to democracy and development. Tanzania’s cyber laws have been abused to target dissenting voices and those who have spoken out against Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19.

Freedom of expression, including the right to access, receive and impart information, is enshrined in international law. In Tanzania, the right to be informed, and to access and disseminate information, is recognized in Articles 18(1) and 18(2) of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Nevertheless, these rights are more cosmetic than based in reality.

With full-throttled COVID-19 denial and laws in place to prevent the open exchange of information and opinions on the disease on- and offline, Tanzanians are left with severely limited access to information and many are afraid to speak out.

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights under lockdowns and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic in nine African countries: Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Algeria, Nigeria, Namibia, Tunisia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

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