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Covid-19 crisis grows in Tanzania as president rejects risks

Amid the unfolding health-care crisis, President John Magufuli has declared the East African nation free of Covid-19.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Tanzania’s main hospitals have been swamped by patients displaying coronavirus symptoms, intensive-care units are full and funeral masses have become daily occurrences.

Amid the unfolding health-care crisis, President John Magufuli has declared the East African nation free of Covid-19. He’s eschewed lockdowns, discouraged the use of face masks and banned the release of infection data since April, making Tanzania the only country in the world besides insular North Korea that doesn’t release the statistics.

“The government should break the silence,” ruling party lawmaker Zacharia Issay said in parliament on Thursday. “I am tired of going to burials.”

The government’s unconventional stance toward the pandemic led the World Health Organisation to caution that it is in breach of its obligations to combat the spread of the disease and supply data about its prevalence. A failure to reverse course could leave the nation of 60 million people contending with an unmitigated public health disaster and facing international isolation and pariah status.

Muhimbili Hospital, the Aga Khan Hospital, TMJ Hospital, Hindu Mandal Hospital, Regency Medical Center, Kairuki Hospital and Rabininsia Memorial Hospital in the commercial hub of Dar es Salaam all had to turn patients away over recent weeks because they’d been inundated, according to doctors and officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared state reprisals. Beds, oxygen and respirators were all in short supply, and intensive-care units were full, they said.

Hospitalisations of patients suffering from respiratory problems, fatigue and other conditions typically associated with Covid-19 began rising in January after the year-end holidays, the doctors said.

A spokesperson at the Aga Khan Hospital couldn’t immediately comment when called on Wednesday, while Regency Medical Center didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions they requested. Calls to the other hospitals weren’t answered.

Health Permanent Secretary Mabula Mchembe last week denied that hospitals are being overrun by coronavirus patients. Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima said the government has no plans to import vaccines.

“I don’t expect to announce any lockdown because our living God will protect us,” Magufuli said January 27 in a speech broadcast by the state’s Tanzania Broadcasting Corp. “We will continue to take other health precautions, including steam therapy.”

Minimal testing

Magufuli, Gwajima and two other officials are the only government figures who are authorised to publicly comment on the virus. Calls to government spokesman Hassan Abassi on Wednesday weren’t immediately answered.

The US embassy in Tanzania said it was aware of a significant increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country since the start of the year, while warning that mitigation and prevention measures remained limited and heath-care facilities could quickly become overwhelmed.

Ascertaining the true extent of the crisis is impossible because there is minimal testing. That means most people who contract the virus are unaware and undocumented, a status quo that is fueling the rapid spread of the pandemic, according to three doctors. A government laboratory tasked with processing those samples that are collected can take longer than 48 hours to deliver results, they said.

There are other indications that Tanzania hasn’t been spared from the pandemic, which has claimed more than 2.3 million lives globally.

Oxygen shortages

Tanzania Oxygen Ltd., the country’s main supplier of the gas, has started restricting supplies because it can’t keep pace with demand and hospitals have been approaching smaller manufacturers to help meet the shortfall, according to a health-facility administration official, who requested not to be identified because the matter is sensitive. Calls to Tanzanian Oxygen weren’t immediately answered on Wednesday.

Lawmaker Issay told parliament that he found an oxygen shortage at Benjamin Mkapa Hospital, the biggest health facility in the capital Dodoma, when he visited on Wednesday. People have died after developing “breathing difficulties,” he said.

Dar es Salaam-based Radio One has allocated as long as 30 minutes to making funeral announcements over the past month, compared with five minutes to 10 minutes previously, according to one of its employees who asked not to be identified. Calls to the radio station’s management weren’t immediately answered on Wednesday.

And the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, which brings together Catholic bishops from across the country, told the BBC last week that it is now conducting daily funeral masses, compared with one or two a week previously.

At least two doctors died recently after experiencing breathing difficulties, their colleague told Bloomberg. About 10 lawyers passed away over the past two months, four in a single week, the Citizen newspaper reported last week, citing the Tanganyika Law Society President Rugemeleza Nshala, who described their ailments as the “current” pneumonia and other conditions, such as diabetes.

“Misled citizens are dying” and Magufuli’s handling of the pandemic is having “devastating effects to lives,” Freeman Mbowe, chairman of the main opposition Chadema party, said last week on Twitter. “Tanzania isn’t Covid-free.”

© 2021 Bloomberg

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