The Tanzania Edition

On COVID, policy and an about-face

Colin here. I was in Tanzania a few weeks ago, and it was interesting to observe the sea change in public perception when it comes to COVID. The previous President of the country, John Magufuli, was seen as one of Africa’s most prominent Coronavirus skeptics and it trickled down to all areas of the government, including the health minister. According to NPR in February 2021:

...health minister Dr. Dorothy Gwajima stood before press cameras with her deputies. They all drank concoctions containing ginger, garlic and lemons to assure the public that the best way to beat the coronavirus was through natural remedies. "The government has no plans to receive COVID-19 vaccines that are being distributed in other countries,'' Gwajima told the press conference.

Magufuli died later that year, after a two-week absence from public life. While the official comment was that he died of heart disease, there is speculation that died of COVID. 

Fast forward to July 28 of this year, Tanzania's current president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, got her COVID-19 vaccine. It was the formal launch of the country’s vaccination campaign with vaccines donated from the United States. There is now a widespread education push throughout the country to change the perception about the vaccine, as well as the urgent need to receive more doses in order to reach their stated vaccination goals—the country is aiming to vaccinate 60% of its 58 million person population.

Why is this interesting? 

Under Magufuli, the country was bombarded with COVID denialism. The virus was played down, and the population was told that a combination of prayer and home remedies could help the situation. And, in an instant, the policies were reversed. Trouble is, public perception takes a longer time to shift. According to NPR: 

"Things changed so suddenly. I know many people who are still trying to reconcile themselves to the government's new COVID approach," says Herrieth Makwetta, a health reporter for a Swahili daily newspaper, Mwananchi, based in Dar es Salaam.

"There was a time it felt like a taboo to write the word COVID-19 anywhere on internet,'' says Makwetta, referring to online regulations passed in July 2020, prohibiting the sharing of information on outbreaks without government approval — and leaving room for disinformation to spread.

"I met so many people who believed that COVID-19 didn't exist, and that it was mere propaganda from Western countries. Proving them wrong publicly was a bit tricky. How do you prove it when the authorities say it doesn't exist in the country? "says Dr. Deus Kitapondya, an emergency medicine specialistbased in Dar es Salaam.

"The obvious truth is that the general public is still deeply divided about vaccines, even among some pro-government scientists. For a long time, people were officially made to believe that vaccines are not safe,'' says a medical doctor who works at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital.

We’re familiar with the proliferation of COVID misinformation on the internet. But in this case, patient zero for the bad information came from the former regime. It was a bold and declarative move for the new President to get jabbed on TV and also bring about an about-face in policy, but what are the education methods, community efforts, and advocacy required to reach the rest of the population? (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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