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Covid-19 in Tanzania: Pursuit of Health Sovereignty?


What’s the difference between Kenya’s response to Covid-19 and Tanzania’s? It’s difficult to know about Tanzania because journalistic practice dictates that if an African leader stands up to western leaders, experts or even mere bureaucrats or journalists, they must be slapped down, ridiculed and hounded for the remainder of their office for their temerity. 

It’s not so difficult to find out about Kenya’s response: a curfew was imposed and violently enforced, many people were held (effectively, interned) in insanitary conditions, some were beaten and some died, children will remain out of school until next January, hospitals are said to be overwhelmed (aren’t they always?), there are restrictions on movement, shortages of food, etc. 

In Tanzania, children were sent home for a few months, but people were encouraged to go to work, feed their families, take care of themselves so that they could take care of people who were not able to. Magufuli refused to go running to the international community for handouts earmarked for (well-behaved) African leaders.

Consequences from Kenya’s response to Covid-19 are far more severe than those from the virus itself. Of course, Tanzania is going to have to face the consequences of the responses of countries around them, and the consequences of their trading partners’ respective responses; for example, there is already a massive drop in tourism, globally, something a lot of poor countries disproportionately depend on. 

But perhaps the difference between Kenya’s and Tanzania’s response to the virus runs deeper than the daily struggle for basic things, such as food, habitation, education, healthcare and the rest. The BBC, in that sneering tone specially honed for Africans, have coupled Magufuli’s approach to Covid-19 with his objections to ‘imperialism’.

In fact, Magufuli objects to the likes of mining operators from rich countries granting his country a paltry 3%, quaintly referred to as ‘royalties’, of anything declared as a profit. He advises people to balance rich countries’ ‘giving’ against what they take, which is not unreasonable. Or perhaps the BBC doesn’t recognise imperialism that hasn’t been branded as such by them?

While the Constitution of the World Health Organization states that “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, their response to the virus appears to view health as the avoidance of certain pathogens deemed more catastrophic than others, pretty much at all costs. Tanzania, and all poor countries, have a lot more to worry about than Covid-19. (Don’t we all?)

In their anxiety to depict Magufuli as an unworthy opponent of imperialism, an incapable leader of Tanzania and a generally uninformed person whose tenure verges on dictatorial (and I’m certainly not saying he’s faultless), many commentators have missed something important. Africa and Africans won’t be ‘rising’ when, or because the English Guardian or the BBC plasters it up in banner headlines. 

Perhaps it will happen when leaders like Magufuli, human as he is, stand up to the sanctimony of the western media, the neo-imperialism of wealthy countries, and the complicity of the ‘international’ institutions they fund. But the difference between Kenya’s and Tanzania’s response? Tanzania refused to be cowed into overseeing a complete breakdown of the economy, of law and order; they even refused to take money to do what Kenya and other countries happily did. 

It could be argued that Magufuli is striving for health sovereignty, which is, by definition, autonomous, unlike the top-down, one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’ that rich countries and their institutions are so keen for poor countries to adopt. At least, he seems to be highlighting a tension between the WHO’s definition of health and their approach to health emergencies, especially in poor countries (but not exclusively). 

Much remains to be seen, but what Magufuli has done so far has resulted in a lot less harm than what Kenyatta has done, which is just more of the same. In contrast, Magufuli has stood up, with his people; he has refused to be goaded, and to be induced into handing over everything to rich countries and institutions. He refused to betray the Tanzanian people, refused the readies. How many other leaders, in Africa and elsewhere, can claim the same? 

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