As President Magufuli’s repeated pronouncements that God has removed the coronavirus from Tanzania have grabbed international attention, and the WHO is left wondering about the rates of infection in the country, for the average Tanzanian any news about the disease is getting harder and harder to come by. At the same time, for some international tourists and investors, Tanzania is taking care to demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the virus. Under this Covid-denial rule, access to information about Covid-19 has become an elite privilege.
Around the world there are myriad approaches to combatting Covid-19, but Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s outright denial of the virus puts Tanzania in a very small category. The denial is full throated, not only denying the disease exists in Tanzania, but attacking individuals and institutions for responding differently.
Magufuli and his government’s attacks are familiar to anyone following Covid deniers; Mocking people who wear masks, questioning the quality of tests and masks (especially those that come from China), and framing Covid-19 restrictions as unwelcome outside intervention – in Tanzania’s case, as Western meddling.
Inside Tanzania, competing narratives have been aggressively shut down. Local Kwanza Online TV was suspended by government regulators for 11 months for ‘unbalanced’ coverage of the pandemic; Newspaper Tanzania Daima is now banned, four months after one of their reporters was suspended for reporting on Covid-19. Opposition parties who were initially active to promote testing and public safety are now silent. The Ministry of Health, which had been able to release guidance at the beginning of the pandemic and maintain limited Covid treatment centers, is closing those centers because they are not reporting any new cases – skeptics will say it’s because they are not allowed to.
Government bodies and institutions that interface with the rest of the world have some (but not much) more leeway to engage with the dangers of the disease. The Ministry of Health continues to include limited information online about coronavirus; its most recent report provides guidance for international travelers and states, saying that “Tanzania is one of the countries that has reported the disease and taken effective measures to control the spread of the disease” (translated from Swahili).
The semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar had a different approach early on, more in line with international guidance on preventative measures. This divergent response was both possible because of and limited by the unique governance sharing system with the mainland. But in June when President Magufuli took steps to prepare for upcoming elections, Zanzibar quickly followed suit and lifted all Covid-19 restrictions.
In the absence of government guidance, private citizens rely on social media groups, foreign embassies, and private networks to provide critical information on Covid-19. Anecdotally, people who visit private doctors for other concerns have received off-the-record advice to stay home or take precautions because of underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19. But even these private communications are under increasing pressure, as recent legislation has made using social media for sharing information about Covid-19 illegal (along with a longer list of banned topics like protests, sexuality, personal privacy, public security, public safety, and religion).
These new restrictions build on the 2018 Electronic and Postal Communications Regulations. Taken together with the gaps in Tanzanians’ access to internet and telecoms services – gaps that are gendered and favors urbanites – citizens have been living for the last two years in an environment where “the majority of open conversation about and in Tanzania risks becoming an echo chamber for the upper class”. In this pandemic moment, that echo chamber evolves into a potentially lethal disparity in access to information about Covid—only the privileged can learn about the disease and its dangers.
…while the government denies and punishes discussion of Covid-19, it is still receiving international funds directly connected to Covid-19 preparedness and response.
This is not meant to imply that healthcare solutions can only come from internationally touted measures. Community-based healthcare has repeatedly proven its value (recent efforts against Ebola provide vivid examples) and localized innovations are crucial to fighting the pandemic. But the Tanzanian government is not only refusing to take action, it is also suppressing the information sharing that is essential for communities to muster their own responses.
Yet while the government denies and punishes discussion of Covid-19, it is still receiving international funds directly connected to Covid-19 preparedness and response (in July the African Development Bank announced a relief fund targeted to “reduce the incidence and mortality in eastern Africa due to Covid-19 pandemic”), negotiating border testing procedures with neighbors, and issuing travel advisories that – while weak – demonstrate some level of respect for Covid-19 precautions.
These limited measures may only reflect the reality that Tanzania is not strong enough politically or economically to completely reject external-facing acceptance of Covid-19 safeguards. For now Tanzania is balancing an internal practice of denial and punishment with the external veneer of compliance. As well as running all sorts of immediate risks, this balance is not likely to be sustainable when Africa’s pandemic curve begins to fall. As its neighbors, donors and trading partners find paths to reopening, slowly reinstating international trade and travel, Tanzania has made itself a risky partner and may need to change its approach or be left behind.
Tanzania’s African peers and donors have not made strong critiques of Tanzania’s repressive non-response, nor have they signaled consequences for internal repression and non-compliance with Covid-19 precautions. This may reflect a hesitation to point fingers since across Africa civil-liberties are being tested and attacked under the guise of pandemic control, and multilaterals have failed to deliver a functional public health response.
Eventually the critiques will come, either from outside or inside of Tanzania. They will need to grapple not only with the massive public health repercussions of Covid-19 denial, but also with the wider political ramifications of growing censorship in Tanzania, and with the intersection of the two that has made information on health and safety a rarified commodity exclusively available to the elite.
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