The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged Tanzania’s authorities to take “robust action” against the coronavirus pandemic amid increasing warnings that the country is witnessing a deadly resurgence in infections.
President John Magufuli has long played down the virus, repeatedly claiming that Tanzania defeated COVID-19 with God’s help and refusing to take tough measures to curb its spread.
But a recent spate of deaths attributed to pneumonia has struck both members of the public and government officials. On Friday, after months of denial, Magufuli appeared to admit the coronavirus was circulating in Tanzania, a country of some 60 million people.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a number of Tanzanians travelling to neighbouring countries and beyond have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and protect populations in these countries and beyond,” he said in a statement on Saturday.
Tedros said he had urged Tanzania in late January to take measures against the pandemic and to prepare for vaccinations.
“Since then I have spoken with several authorities in Tanzania but WHO is yet to receive any information regarding what measures Tanzania is taking to respond to the pandemic.
“This situation remains very concerning. I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting COVID-19 cases and share data.
“I also call on Tanzania to implement the public health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmission, and to prepare for vaccination.”
‘Let’s be careful’
The country last gave case figures in April 2020, reporting 509 infections.
At the same time, Magufuli revealed he had secretly had a variety of items tested for the virus – of which a papaya, quail and a goat apparently tested positive. He has also questioned COVID-19 vaccines without offering evidence.
On Wednesday, the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, died after his opposition party admitted he had contracted coronavirus.
The head of the civil service, John Kijazi, also died on Wednesday.
The cause of death has not been revealed. But Magufuli brought up COVID-19 at his funeral.
“When this respiratory disease erupted last year, we won because we put God first and took other measures. I’m sure we will win again if we do so this time around,” he said.
However, dissent is mounting within the country to the government’s position on the pandemic.
On Saturday, the Tanzania Law Society became the first professional body to call on the government to openly recognise the virus and take adequate measures.
On Sunday, Magufuli revealed that some of his aides and family members had contracted COVID-19 but recovered, and offered some lukewarm support for the use of masks.
“The government has not banned use of masks but some of these are not safe at all … let’s be careful,” he said after a service in a Dar-es-Salaam church.
“Let us all depend on God as we also take other preventive measures. I put God first and that is why I do not wear a mask.”
The health ministry in a statement on Sunday called on citizens to “continue to believe in God” and also respect preventive measures, including mask-wearing.