ON Sunday afternoon, 24th May 2020, hundreds of residents of Dar es Salaam city in Tanzania flocked the Coco-Beach on the shores of the Indian Ocean to celebrate “the end of COVID-19 in Tanzania.”
For the same intentions, others held parties in various locations of the city, responding to a call by the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda, who amplified President John Magufuli’s statement on the assumption that COVID-19 was almost wiped out of the country due to divine interventions.
Describing the situation, one senior analyst told SAUTI KUBWA: “I see a group of ill-educated and misinformed people who have been falsely led to believe that COVID-19 is over. Most of them have no masks on and social distancing is not observed. It is a recipe for disaster.”
On the same day, the Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, released figures showing a sharp decline of COVID-19 patients in hospitals, signalling the president’s wish for a Corona-free Tanzania. But the reality on the ground, in people’s families, is different.
The spread of COVID-19 has tested global realities. No single institution or sector has been left untouched – the economy, politics, science, religion, law, the military, culture and so forth. Its tide is so wide and strong, and there is a danger that when it eventually subsides, many people and institutions will find themselves naked.
In Tanzania, it presents itself in a triple jeopardy phenomenon. There is the virus itself wielding and decimating lives. In fear of the government – whose president has been in a constant state of denial – the media cannot report objectively about it.
Secondly, there is the president – who is all-knowing, all-present and micromanaging. He has even gone to the level of micro-managing the blood samples in the test laboratory.
Thirdly, there is a national laboratory in-charge of managing the dynamics of the pandemic. This laboratory has been rendered useless by the president and his supporters. Politicians have turned themselves into lab technicians because they want “political results.” Unfortunately, the virus continues unperturbed.
The trouble started on 3rd May 2020, when the president revealed how, with the help of the security agency, he had secretly intervened in the test laboratory by sending dubious specimen from a chicken, pawpaw, a quail, a sheep, a goat and engine oil.
Some of these specimens, according to him, tested positive, leading to his accusation of the western countries attempting to undermine the country through COVID-19. He fired the laboratory chief and procurement chief of the Medical Store Department. Then he ordered an investigation into the management of the lab.
On Saturday, 23rd May 2020, the Health Minister, Ummy Mwalimu, said the investigation had confirmed the president’s doubts.
The investigation came up with the following findings: One of the testing machines was technically defective for two months, the professional handling of the testing process was questionable, and there was a serious lack of qualified personnel. It was expected.
The president had ordered the ministry to lower the number of fresh cases and to increase the number of recovered patients. No single person in the current government can question or correct the president. Even the media cannot do any independent counter-investigation. They will report whatever the government says, without questioning it.
There are unconfirmed rumours that the government’s investigating team found nothing serious but they had to save the president’s face.
One insider even doubts the results of the president’s specimen that had been declared to have tested positive. “It was a politically orchestrated move, and no one can verify it,” said the source.
Is Covid-19 wiped out?
This assertion is outrageous in the absence of statistical evidence to confirm it. Official statistics have not been forthcoming and when they do, the delivery has been rather sporadic, inconsistent and at times contradictory.
It could be a strategy to conceal the inadequacy of the health sector, to camouflage the government’s failed efforts to contain the pandemic or the fear to expose its incompetence. Numbers of patients in hospitals may be dwindling, but that is not proof of the end of the pandemic’s end. Word is out that many sick people are resorting to homecare given the horrendous experiences at some designated hospitals.
“The hospitals have been deserted due to stigma and poor health care. After all, the people understand there is no medicine, so they are dying at home in great numbers, unnoticed by the government. I know of a senior minister who has lost seven family members in three weeks; and many others who have lost between three and five members of their families due to COVID-19. The government may not know, but family members do,” said a senior government official on conditions of anonymity.
The state’s exclusive control of data and the clampdown on collaborative reporting on such an important health issue is a manifestation of its authoritarianism. It not only weakens efforts to tackle the pandemic but also deprives the people the right to make important decisions concerning their lives.
How authentic is the health minister report?
In the absence of the full report, the short clip seems to be a one-sided story designed to affirm the president’s position and the government’s stand on the matter. The sensational manner in which the terms of reference were handed over to the task force left no doubt about the outcome.
The limited presentation of findings does not also touch on a number of unknowns such as whether the head of the laboratory had actually alerted her superiors about the poor condition of the COVID-19 testing equipment given the gravity of the issue.
Perhaps her concerns were not addressed due to the well-known poor funding of the health sector. The information on the age and efficiency of the equipment or the adequacy of the number of technicians prior to the report is unclear.
The pressure that the staff were working under remains unknown. The report, moreover, impliedly shifts the blame to the director and denigrates her qualifications which for all intents and purposes seem quite high.