The year 2021 has seen advances in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Since January, vaccines have been rolled out in more than 60 countries, according to Our World in Data. But in Tanzania, the president not only opposes vaccination, he denies the country has had COVID-19 cases.
On January 27, President John Magufuli said, without evidence, that “vaccinations are dangerous.” He added that “if white people were able to come up with vaccinations, a vaccination for AIDS would have been found, a vaccination for tuberculosis could have eliminated it by now; a Malaria vaccine would have been found; a vaccination for cancer would have been found by now.”
Magufuli also insisted that, because of God, “[Tanzanians] have lived for over one year without the virus … even right here there is no one who is wearing a mask,” and that the health ministry “should be cautious, over the health of all Tanzanians and avoid the temptation to turn us into a country where vaccination trials are conducted freely.”
His claims that vaccines are dangerous, and that Tanzania has been COVID-19 free, are false.
Vaccines for everything?
Vaccines are used to train the immune system to fight diseases, but they are not straightforward. AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and cancer are all caused by different problems (parasites, viruses, DNA mutations, bacteria), with different complexities.
No vaccine has been developed for AIDS. The Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine is used against tuberculosis, but its impact on the transmission of the disease has been limited. As the World Health Organization (WHO) states, the BCG vaccine “does not prevent primary infection and, more importantly, does not prevent reactivation of latent pulmonary infection.”
A more recent vaccine, the RTS,S, is used against malaria. It, too, partially protects against the disease. The WHO began recommending it in 2016, and the vaccine was first introduced on a large scale in 2019.
Vaccines exist to prevent diseases that can cause cancer, like human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis. But a universal vaccine against cancer is “biologically impossible,” as Maurie Markman, the president of Medicine & Science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, told the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in 2018. "There can't be a vaccine for cancer because cancer isn't a single entity. It's thousands of different conditions," Markman said.
The speed with which the major COVID-19 vaccines have been developed has aroused skepticism over their safety. However, they have undergone multiple tests before being authorized for distribution.
In the U.S., the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines received Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but still had to meet rigorous safety standards and prove their effectiveness in multiple clinical trials.
Following Magufuli’s remarks, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, urged Tanzania “to ramp up public health measures such as wearing masks to fight #COVID19.”
“Science shows that #VaccinesWork and I encourage the government to prepare for a COVID vaccination campaign,” she tweeted.
Tanzania’s government has encouraged citizens to choose home or herbal medicines and maintain personal hygiene rather than get vaccinated. In May, the president said Tanzania was planning to acquire an herbal cure from Madagascar.
Polygraph.info has fact-checked COVID-Organics, a drink derived from artemisia annua (an antimalaria ingredient) and other medicinal herbs, which Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, launched in April. The drink has not prevented the coronavirus from taking hold in Madagascar.
During a Tanzanian health ministry press briefing in early February, an official demonstrated how to make a ginger, onion, lemon and pepper smoothie, and claimed, with no evidence, it would help prevent contracting COVID-19, the BBC reported. A local doctor speaking anonymously told the BBC that the government’s message that a “vegetable mixture, which has nutritional benefits, is all they need to keep coronavirus at bay” is bogus.
Tanzania's president denies that the country has been hit significantly by the coronavirus pandemic.
The government hasn’t reported any new COVID cases since late last April, when it recorded 509 cases and 21 deaths. Since last year, Magufuli has repeatedly stated that God “removed” the virus from the nation, the Associated Press reported.
On January 27, Magufuli claimed the country has been coronavirus-free for over a year “because our God is able, and Satan will always fail and will be defeated in various illnesses.”
News reports tell a different story. In April 2020, three members of Tanzania’s parliament died from unknown causes over several days, which led opposition party members to call for the parliament to be suspended and its members to be tested, along with their staff and families, Al Jazeera reported.
The following month, Magufuli dismissed the head of Tanzania’s national laboratory, which is in charge of COVID-19 testing. Since then, he has continued to insist the pandemic doesn’t exist in the country, Foreign Policy magazine reported.
“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,” Emmanuel Makundi, the editor of Radio France Internationale’s Kiswahili service, told the Africa Calling podcast. Makundi said deaths have spiked, “but neither the government nor the families are officially confirming it was due to coronavirus.”
As the BBC wrote, several Tanzanian families have quietly mourned the deaths of family members they suspect died of COVID-19. Most wouldn’t speak to the BBC for fear of government retribution.
In early February, Zanzibar’s first vice president, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, from the opposition party ACT Wazalendo, admitted to being hospitalized after contracting COVID-19. According to the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen, he was “the first person to declare his Covid-19 status in Tanzania since April 29, 2020.” Despite his announcement, Zanzibar authorities said they were unaware of his situation, the newspaper wrote. (Zanzibar, an autonomous region of Tanzania, is an island off the country’s Indian Ocean coast.)
One indicator of the spread of coronavirus is the number of Tanzanians testing positive when they cross the border. “Ugandan and Zambian officials say they are seeing large numbers of Tanzanian travelers testing positive when they try to cross the border,” The Wall Street Journal recently reported. “Rwanda is denying entry to Tanzanian truckers. Countries as far away as Denmark say they have detected the more-contagious coronavirus strain that first emerged in South Africa in test samples from people arriving from Tanzania.”
After the reports from Denmark in January, Magufuli accused Tanzanians traveling abroad of “importing a new weird corona,” the BBC reported.
Last May, the president also dismissed COVID test kits, claiming they were faulty and had returned positive results on samples taken from a goat and a pawpaw fruit, Reuters reported. “There is something happening. I said before we should not accept that every aid is meant to be good for this nation,” Magufuli said.
The day before Magufuli’s January 27 remarks, leaders of the Catholic Church in Tanzania broke their silence and issued an alert about a surge in suspected COVID-19 cases. The secretary of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference told the BBC that there has been a rise in the number of funeral services in urban areas. “We were used to having one or two requiem masses per week in urban parishes, but now we have daily masses. Something is definitely amiss," he said.