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Tanzania and Covid-19: Some Accidental Truths?


A British journalist based in Tanzania claims in The Spectator that the WHO is ‘concerned’ about the government’s lack of transparency during the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing under the pen name ‘Tom James’, the journalist gives the impression that there is an extremely serious Covid-19 outbreak in the country, one that the government is refusing to address.

However, the story is undermined by the journalist’s description of how things are in Dar es Salaam, the country’s biggest city, during this outbreak. For a start, he admits that there is little or no evidence for any deepening crisis, but he continues to write as if the absence of evidence means things must be worse than the government says.

The journalist could return to Britain, although he chooses not to do so (because he wants to look after his dogs). But clearly, things are not so bad that he must leave; he’s got a job and a home; he has a car that he is still able to run, so no fuel shortages; he can go to the market to buy supplies, so no panic buying, hoarding or sudden spikes in prices of staples.

It sounds, if the journalist is to be believed, as if everyone there is just getting on with it. We get a description of normal, everyday life in Tanzania: the police are patrolling the highways, fining people for anything and nothing; a motorbike taxi with three passengers is on the road; only the driver has a mask, but no helmet; again, nothing unusual. What, I’d like to know, would ‘Tom James’ prefer?

The English Guardian claims that Tanzania’s president is undercounting cases and deaths. But the US is overcounting, something the Guardian seems oblivious of; so is the UK, and they are collecting records that cannot be reanalyzed, should anyone ever wish to know the true numbers of cases, deaths and excess deaths.

If President Magufuli is ‘playing down’ the threat of Covid-19, the US and the UK are talking it up (Norway is considering the possibility that their own lockdown was unnecessary).

The media frequently uses the word ‘authoritarian’ when referring to the Tanzanian president. So, what if Magufuli did impose a lockdown? Wouldn’t that be even more authoritarian than not doing so? In most African countries, people can’t just stop working, self-isolate at home, work from home, get their food delivered or hop in their car, unlike the more fortunate ‘Tom James’.

I doubt if he and others criticizing Magufuli would like to see Tanzania follow the example set by Kenya. Human Rights Watch describes a country completely unprepared to ‘isolate’ thousands of possible Covid-19 cases, as unprepared as all poor countries are.

In Kenya, people have been rounded up and held with numerous other people who may or may not have the virus. Even in the UK one doctor writes: “many patients acquired the infection while already hospitalised for other causes“. Infection control in East African hospitals is not great; how much worse will it be in these temporary holding facilities in Kenya?

Kenya imposed a curfew early on in the pandemic and police have been beating people who break the curfew. But, as the Human Rights Watch article shows, conditions in the country don’t allow everyone to drop their normal routines and get home before 7. People can’t easily ‘socially distance’ in overcrowded slums, cramped public transport and other overstretched services.

An article in African Arguments describes just how authoritarian, and how destructive, the lockdown is in Kenya (although the same publication in April called for a lockdown in Tanzania).

Al Jazeera point out that opposition leaders in Tanzania accuse the government of lying about Covid-19 and of failing to address the crisis. But what country’s opposition doesn’t accuse their government of lying and of making unwise decisions? It’s an election year, and Magufuli wants to win, as does the opposition, and these phenomena are not peculiar to Tanzania, nor even to African countries.

Usually the first to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded building (and they have done plenty of shouting about Covid-19 in Tanzania), the BBC has a short piece entitled “Tanzanian doctors ‘not overwhelmed by pandemic‘.” (You need to page down a long way to find it. It’s worth noting that the BBC’s content about Tanzania seems to depend heavily on contributions from the public, social media and other questionable sources.)

One of the worst things that can happen to poor countries during a pandemic is that people panic, as it can bring about the very conditions that will only deepen the crisis. ‘Tom James’ appears to want someone to shout ‘fire’, although he doesn’t quite do it himself. But, however inadvertently, his article suggests that no one in Tanzania is listening to him or his media colleagues. Let’s hope that continues.

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