Tanzania’s health ministry this week announced it has no plans to accept Covid-19 vaccines, maintaining that the eastern African nation does not have the virus. However, Tanzanians speaking to friends and family say that a number of people have died from the virus.
“The sources we’ve been talking to say some of their colleagues and family members have passed on because of Covid-19, but this week they are saying that talking about Covid in Tanzania is a taboo,” RFI Kiswahili service editor Emmanuel Makundi tells Africa Calling podcast.
He says that their sources are reporting a spike in deaths, but neither the government nor the families are officially confirming it was due to coronavirus.
“Although we know that the first Vice President of Zanzibar, Maalim Seif Sherif Hamad, has contracted Covid and is receiving treatment in the hospital, so it’s a real thing,” he adds.
Local herbs and steam preventatives
Tanzania’s Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima spoke at a press conference this week calling for Tanzanians to use steam inhalation, a remedy debunked by health experts globally. She wasn’t wearing a mask while speaking, claiming that Tanzania is safe.
Others in the health ministry have called for Tanzanians to use local herbs to cure Covid-19.
Makundi, who has been following the story closely for the RFI Kiswahili service, says that the reason for the government to deny coronavirus in Tanzania is unknown.
“It does exist in the East African region, and Tanzania is not an island,” he says.
“The religion council this week has warned its worshippers to take all precautions to ensure they don’t shake hands unnecessarily, they don’t go to the gatherings, they put on their mask, they wash their hands with water or sanitizer,” he adds.
While Makundi’s sources say they are wearing masks, others even in the lower ranks of government are refusing to wear masks nor deal with those who do.
“Last week they were telling me that one of the mayors of Kilimanjaro, before he started the council meeting told people wearing masks, ‘Please take off your mask before we continue with this meeting,’” says Makundi.
“So you can imagine those wearing masks, they cannot sit comfortably, especially in public places,” he adds.
Suspicion over vaccines
In January, President John Magufuli said that vaccines were fake and Tanzanian people should be careful, says Makundi, adding that the president claimed the vaccine was not good for conception.
Fears about the various vaccines being dangerous for conception or harmful to pregnant women have been debunked by medical experts as well.
Minister Gwajima said this week that Tanzania had no plans to take Covid-19 vaccines, but did not close the door completely, saying that any vaccines would need to receive ministry approval.
Tanzania is eligible for the international COVAX effort overseen by the World Health Organisation for low and middle income countries.
Although Magufuli is decrying vaccines, he observed social distancing at a government meeting this week.
Meanwhile WHO Africa head Dr Matshidiso Moeti urged Tanzania to hand over statistics on Covid-19. The country has not reported any cases since late April, as Magufuli said that God had eliminated the deadly virus from the country.
“The government probably knows that the disease is there and is not officially confirming it in the country; they’re telling people to continue and go about their business,” says RFI editor Makundi.
For people traveling in and out of Tanzania, the Covid-19 issues are even more complicated than other countries.
Only national laboratories will be conducting Covid-19 tests for people to travel, and tests must be made one week before.
Expensive Covid tests
“There’s a lot of people, long queues at the national laboratory-- people are missing flights,” says Makundi.
Paying for the test was originally set at 40,000 Tanzanian shillings, or less than US$15, but that has all changed, he says, as prices are now at US$100 per test.
“The government doesn’t have a robust plan to test people, but rather only for those who are traveling abroad and not the local citizens, because it is now so expensive,” he adds.
This ‘lack of Covid’ in the country has damaged Tanzania’s reputation as well in the travel industry.
Both the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the UK government have strongly advised against travel to Tanzania.