John Magufuli, Tanzania’s 61-year-old president, is very much a moralist. He will not apologize for grounding his politics in conservative Christian values and neither is anyone to expect that the former high school teacher would back down.
Magufuli espouses a simplified Aristotelian sense of justice, an equitable distribution to those deserving of good and bad. This notion of justice as fairness and as rightness was integral to his election to the presidency, initially in 2015. It also helped that he marketed himself as an upright Christian man who was very much aware of the biases of his eletorate.
Initially, the man inspired hope, taking his moral politics into rooting out an African problem of rot in the Tanzanian public service. He launched a war on corruption and was unforgiving to those who fed off the labor and mite put in by poor and ordinary Tanzanians. But there were also downsides to Magufuli’s religion-powered politics that saw him make life harder for the LGBTQ+ community in his country as well as propagate the belief that people who employ family planning and birth control are “lazy [people] afraid they will not be able to feed their children”.
Neither of the two unfortunate actions taken by Magufuli can be overlooked, however, treating a deadly pandemic as if is a fight of spirituality and determinedly ruling out scientific measures for saving lives is definitely the lowest point in the presidency of a man with a respectable doctorate in chemistry.
First of all, Magufuli’s administration had declared that the country was coronavirus-free. This came after government insisted normal public life would have to go on in spite of suspected increase in cases leading up to the end of last year. Schools remained opened as did churches, the establishments Magufuli credited with the “success” of Tanzania’s fight.
“The corona disease has been eliminated thanks to God,” Magufuli once stated in a speech, apparently because of the prayers of Tanzanians. The spiritual inclination was not a joke as the government warned the American Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam to stay out of Tanzania’s internal affairs after the American envoy issued a statement in May 2020 claiming that hospitals in the commercial capital were on the verge of collapse due to admitting coronavirus-infected patients.
The US Embassy alleged that coronavirus cases were seriously and intentionally underreported. All that while, Magufuli had been imploring his compatriots to pray and nothing more. Any pressure that came from elements outside Tanzania was deemed adversarial to his government.
Magufuli did not only allege foreign conspiracies to undermine his government but also moved to crush faith in Tanzania’s scientific research community. He once stated that “probably, the technicians are also bought to mislead” on infection and mortality rates in the country. The head of the national research unit in charge of understanding Tanzania’s case count and kinds of infection was sacked after his outfit was accused of finding coronavirus in goats and pawpaw.
The government then launched an investigation into “criminal possibility at the national laboratory”. While most African countries placed restrictions on public life, Tanzania did not. Apart from full churches and mosques, stadia were also loaded with soccer fans and continue to be.
Now, the government is no more sticking to its narrative that COVID-19 has been defeated through prayers. Rather, government authorities are belittling infection rates and advocating alternative remedies including “steam inhalation, and eating fruits and vegetables”, according to Suleiman Jafo, the country’s Minister of Local Governments.
Jafo’s advocacy has actually been sanctioned by Health Minister Dorothy Gwajim, a physician. Gwajim preaches at pressers and on media channels that a concoction involving ginger, lemon, onions and pepper would prevent coronavirus infections.
She maintains that her country has “its own procedure on how to receive any medicines and we do so after we have satisfied ourselves with the product”. For now, Tanzania is rejecting any and all vaccines approved for usage by either the World Health Organization (WHO) or developed countries.
Intriguingly, some government communications give away the impression that authorities are aware of a dire situation. For instance, Magufuli recently accused travelers to Tanzania of “importing a new weird corona”. But there is also a difficulty for a government pursuing propaganda while aiming to force public compliance with preventive measures.
An official of the Health Ministry publicly advised Tanzanians to wear face masks “not because of corona, like some people think, but it’s to prevent respiratory diseases”. The prevention of “respiratory diseases” is the message the Health Ministry is partially running with these days.
While other African countries are working assiduously to procure vaccines while strategically managing infections inland, Tanzania will undoubtedly be behind the curve when the world hopefully nears the light at the end of the tunnel. But obviously, it is within the capacity of a scientist-president to change the impending narrative.