by Ben Taylor
With no official data having been reported in Tanzania since May 2020 on Covid-19 case numbers or deaths, the prevailing situation continues to be one of great uncertainty. The government maintains that the virus has been defeated in Tanzania, and public debate on the matter has largely ceased.
There is no doubt that – in common with much of Africa – the most alarming projections of the early epidemiological models have not come to pass. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), for example, projected that there could be as many as 175,000 deaths caused by the virus in Tanzania during 2020, and Imperial College, London suggested the number could reach 360,000. These projections have, to widespread relief, proved wrong.
The reasons for the relatively slow rate of spread of the virus in much of Africa remain uncertain. The younger age-profile of the population may have contributed, or part of the population may have some form of pre-existing immunity.
Nevertheless, without official data it remains impossible to accurately assess the state of the pandemic within Tanzania. And as nature abhors a vacuum, where there is no official data, rumours and anecdotal evidence thrive.
It is worth, therefore, summarising what we know with more confidence:
First, neighbouring countries saw rising case numbers since the later part of 2020, including Kenya, Uganda, the DRC, Zambia and, most recently, Malawi. In Kenya, the daily number of newly confirmed cases rose above 1,000 for much of October-December. In Zambia and Malawi, where earlier in 2020 case numbers remained very low, sharp increases have been seen in the first two weeks of January, possibly linked to the more infectious so-called South African variant of the virus.
Second, relaxed travel restrictions into Tanzania since mid-2020 have brought rising tourist numbers, particularly from Russia, as those tourists willing to travel at this time look to take advantage of relatively cheap prices and look to Tanzania as a location where restrictions are very relaxed. If the country did truly defeat the virus locally in May and June, it has surely been reintroduced since.
Third, Coronavirus testing has continued among certain groups within Tanzania – such as those intending to travel outside the country or taking part in international sporting events. Six footballers (and three others in the touring party) from a Zimbabwean team in Dar es Salaam for an African Champions League tie received positive test results. (It should be noted, however, that there is further uncertainty in this case, as the Zimbabwean team’s leadership noted irregularities in the testing process and hinted this might have been a tactic by local authorities to hamper their performance in the match.)
Fourth, in the most obviously-comparably contexts – Kenya and Uganda – lockdowns introduced in response to the pandemic have had serious impacts on livelihoods and the economy. The data is not yet conclusive on this, but it seems probable that Tanzania will have thus far escaped some such impacts of the pandemic – though the knock-on effects of global economic difficulties have affected exports, tourism and more.
Finally, and importantly, hospitals have not been overwhelmed and alarming early rumours of night-time burials and mass graves largely dried up.
Given the lack of more dependable data, it is also worth noting, though with caution, some of the unconfirmed rumours that have been circulating more recently, including:
• Reports of a spike in case numbers in December and early January, with rumours centred on cases within the Indian community in Dar es Salaam.
• Hospitals and health workers under intense pressure to avoid speaking to the media, but rumours of patients with certain symptoms being turned away and certain hospitals having high case numbers persist.
• Reports on travellers leaving the country testing negative before departure and positive on arrival at their destination.
The ever-evolving nature of the pandemic is such that judgements on President Magufuli’s unique response are premature. For reasons that probably have little to do with the country’s policy response, case numbers have not reached anything approaching the heights of early projections. And the country has probably – so far – avoided the worst economic impacts. And yet, with rising case numbers in neighbouring countries, and new virus variants spreading rapidly around the world, there are plenty of ways in which Tanzania’s Coronavirus response could go badly wrong.
And there are yet more uncertainties as well. The government’s stance on vaccines, for example, is still unknown. On the one hand, why would a country that has officially defeated the virus need vaccines? And sure enough, the Ministry of Health has been notably reluctant to discuss the country’s attitude to vaccinations. In early January, the Minister of Health, Dr Gwajima, told a reporter: “I cannot tell you now; but we will issue a public statement soon. So, be patient.” A spokesman for the Ministry was also reported as saying that “there are no plans in place yet of importing vaccine for Covid-19, our health experts and scientists are still researching and undergoing clinical trials for the local herbs for covid-19.”
Post-Covid, it is also unclear how the wider world would view a country that decides on vaccine-scepticism. Travel advisory notices could impact on tourist numbers, for example. And if recalcitrance on combatting the virus comes to be seen as undermining global vaccination efforts and putting other countries’ progress against the virus at risk, this could cause further strain to Tanzania’s diplomatic relations, including with donor countries.
In short, while the government continues to claim victory, it remains too early to do so with confidence. And while the government’s critics continue to cry foul, their case remains, to date, inconclusive. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position in which to move forward, yet it remains the only choice we have.