After Tanzania's Covid-denialist president drops dead, "Mama Samia" takes the helm and turns to science to guide pandemic response.
Wearing a somber black hijab and thin-rimmed glasses, Tanzania’s Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan addressed the country late one night in March. “President Magufuli has died of heart failure,” she said in mournful Swahili, as people across this East African nation of 58 million watched her speech on live television.
It was the conclusion to a mystery that had long gripped Tanzanians. For weeks John Pombe Magufuli, who was first elected in 2015, and again in a hotly disputed election last year, had been conspicuously absent from public life. Rumors spread that he had contracted COVID-19 and was in a coma in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi or somewhere in India.
Magufuli’s political opponents fanned the flames of doubt about his whereabouts.
“His COVID denialism is in tatters and his prayer-over-science folly has turned into a deadly boomerang,” opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who challenged Magufuli in Tanzania’s October elections, wrote on Twitter from exile in Belgium, just days before Magufuli perished.
Lissu was referring to his rival’s claim that “coronavirus cannot exist in the body of Christ.” The devoutly religious Magufuli had encouraged his countrymen to gather in churches to pray sickness away.
His suspicious death made Suluhu Hassan, who hails from the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago, the first female leader of a nation where the controversial response to the coronavirus pandemic has raised international eyebrows. She is one of only a handful of women who’ve served as heads of state in modern, post-colonial Africa.
Questions about whether she will reverse the country’s course when it comes to COVID-19 abound.
THERE IS NO CORONAVIRUS HERE
As airplanes were grounded and international borders shut in the spring of 2020, Tanzania’s response to the coronavirus pandemic began well enough, with mask sewing and hand sanitizer use encouraged.
But Magufuli’s early actions also drew ire. He bluntly refused to shutter places of worship. Just a few months into the pandemic, the late President cast doubt on international testing kits, saying that trick samples taken from a pawpaw and a goat had tested positive for COVID-19. He began instead to promote unverified herbal cures and rejected mask wearing.
By May, Magufuli stopped releasing data about the coronavirus entirely, saying the country had defeated it after three days of national prayer. Tanzanian truck drivers who reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 on jobs in neighboring Kenya and Uganda told a different story.
Sululu Hassan has said her government is checking to see if COVID-19 vaccines available in other countries could be brought to Tanzania, but has yet to actually enact a vaccination campaign.
Coronavirus quickly became an almost taboo topic inside Tanzania. Journalists who challenged the official line were penalized, and in July the country’s communications regulator suspended Kwanza Online TV for 11 months. The outlet was accused of “generating and disseminating biased, misleading and disruptive content,” after it circulated a United States Embassy announcement about Tanzania’s failure to publicly release figures about COVID-19.
“You couldn’t even say the word COVID or corona,” Kwanza’s director and activist Maria Sarungi-Tsehai told The Indypendent in an interview. “It was a shameful thing to do.”
Tanzania’s elections went forward in October as if coronavirus were a thing of the past, with opposition candidates and members of Magufuli’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi, or CCM, alike drawing substantial crowds. Bars and markets in the port city and commercial hub of Dar es Salaam remained open, and sunbathers flocked to its beaches.
It was only later on that government officials began to drop dead.
A SERIES OF SUSPICIOUS FUNERALS
Among the dead was Seif Sharif Hamad, an opposition leader from Zanzibar, whose ACT-Wazalendo party told journalists that he’d contracted coronavirus before he perished on February 17. On the same day, Magafuli’s Chief Permanent Secretary, John Kijazi, reportedly had a heart attack.
“Maybe we have wronged God somewhere,” Magufuli pondered at Kijazi’s funeral, finally alluding to an unnamed respiratory illness. “Let us all repent.” His Health Minister, Dorothy Gwajima, also took to recommending steam showers and herbal smoothies.
Meanwhile, doctors in Dar es Salaam who spoke anonymously to the South African weekly The Continent, described treating patients with supplemental oxygen, but were forbidden from even writing coronavirus on death certificates. Officials made no efforts to import coronavirus vaccines.
Gender activist Mwanahamisi Singano draws a direct line between the controversial government response to the pandemic and the body count in Tanzania.
“Families didn’t take precautions and lost not just one person but two or three, because of that lack of information and lack of support in following the procedure and protocol,” Singano, whose cousin died of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic, said.
“There are a lot of lives that have been lost that could have been saved,” she added.
When Suluhu Hassan told the nation that Magufuli had succumbed to a long-standing heart condition that fateful March night, whispers that the president had actually caught COVID-19, along with musings about what Suluhu Hassan might do to tackle the pandemic, intensified.
CHARTING A NEW PATH
Tanzania’s first female leader was inaugurated two days after announcing the death of her predecessor. “Today I have taken an oath different from the rest that I have taken in my career,” she said solemnly. “Those were taken in happiness. Today I took the highest oath of office in mourning.”
Her calm and deliberative manner struck a clear contrast with Magufuli, who was nicknamed “The Bulldozer,” in reference to his brash style. Suluhu Hassan, who has steadily risen through the ranks of CCM, is often affectionately called “Mama Samia.”
Already, Suluhu Hassan has slowly begun to shift the discourse around the coronavirus, wearing a mask on official visits to Uganda and Kenya, and while meeting with Tanzanian elders in Dar es Salaam.
She’s also pulled together a committee of experts to advise her on the coronavirus, who in May recommended that Tanzania join the COVAX vaccination program, follow World Health Organization and Regional Guidelines, and again begin to release data about the virus in Tanzania.
“I’m feeling happy and positive,” Singano told me just hours after the committee made its recommendations.
It remains to be seen just how far Suluhu Hassan, a long-time member of the CCM cadre, will go in breaking with the politics that defined Magufuli’s tenure. She so far appears hesitant to do so. “Samia and Magufuli are the same person. I have been following the debate and it is unhealthy for our nation,” Suluhu Hassan recently told lawmakers bent on discussing Magufuli’s legacy.
Suluhu Hassan has said that her government is checking to see if COVID-19 vaccines available in other countries could be brought to Tanzania, but has yet to actually enact a vaccination campaign. And the country has still not released new data about infection rates .
Some of the cabinet, including Gwajima, who under Magufuli promoted steam and smoothies, remains in positions of power. And while Suluhu Hassan is less averse to mask wearing than Magufuli was, her use of protective gear is inconsistent, and she neglected to wear a face covering on a recent trip to Zanzibar.
Sarungi, the Kwanza TV director, says confusion about basic safety measures endures. “[Magufuli] stigmatized the vaccine; he stigmatized the wearing of masks,” she said. “There are people, even if it is just a small percent, who believe it and who trusted him, and continue to be very suspicious of the masks.”
For now, however, many Tanzanians are simply relieved to see the seeming beginnings of a shift under Suluhu Hassan. “She started with so much grace and so much promise,” Chambi Chachage, a Tanzanian scholar of African politics at Princeton University, said. “People are just happy that it is better than it was.”
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