Many lives will be lost unless the government changes course soon, writes the head of foreign affairs of Tanzania's main opposition.
The fact that COVID-19 arrived in Africa relatively late gave governments on the continent more time to prepare and mobilise. Nonetheless, the number of cases in Africa continues to rise rapidly and presents a severe threat. UN officials say it is likely the pandemic will kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and push 30 million into poverty.
What imperils us all the more at this time is poor leadership. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tanzania, where the government is putting the economy ahead of lives and basing its actions on religion in the place of science.
Earlier this month, President John Magufuli took to the alter of a church to say he would not introduce lockdown measures. He insisted God alone can deal with the pandemic and called for three days of national prayer. In front of a faithful congregation, the nation's president said the satanic COVID-19 does not reside in the body of Jesus and called for people to flock to churches.
Calculated or incompetent?
The reality is that to fight COVID-19, we must reduce person-to-person infections. This will require lockdown measures to restrict contact and should be accompanied by a programme of wider testing and tracing. The government must mobilise in a manner and at a scale rarely seen in peace time.
Around the world, countries require exemplary leadership from a commander-in-chief informed by the science - not, as we have in Tanzania, an irresponsible priest-in-chief.
President Magufuli's appeals to religion may seem delusional, but they are also calculated. There is a reason the government has shut down schools, political gatherings and sporting activities while keeping open churches and mosques. Tanzania is in an election year. The government's manipulation of last year's local elections show it will take whatever measures necessary to gain an advantage, including courting influential religious leaders.
It is ordinary people that will pay for this. Tanzania will be hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak that Magufuli is incubating and our broken healthcare system will suffer. Bent on funding his poorly-planned white elephant projects, the government has long neglected social services and, in particular, healthcare. This is why a nation of 55 million people has just one COVID-19 testing lab, located in Dar es Salaam.
As of 27 April, Tanzania has 299 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and ten registered deaths. But the true figures may be far worse. Our health system cannot test or even effectively diagnose and aggregate COVID-19 related deaths. Even if it could, the government cannot be trusted to truthfully report them. There is already a black mark against Magufuli's administration in this regard; last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed concern over the government's lack of transparency regarding reports of Ebola cases.
Time to save lives
President Magufuli has an obligation to lead Tanzania in the fight against COVID-19. He should leave religion to the priests and prioritise saving lives. Anything else would be inhuman. There will be economic repercussions, but as Ghana's president noted, economies can be resurrected, but dead people cannot.
To battle COVID-19, President Magufuli should lead a unified national effort as called up on by leader of the opposition Freeman Mbowe. He should urgently mobilise and reallocate resources to the health sector, even if it means pausing infrastructure projects. He must prioritise the mass expansion of testing capacity and upscale the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment for our frontline healthcare workers.
The epicentre of COVID-19 in Tanzania, the always busy and congested Dar es Salaam, has to be locked down along with other high-risk regions. The city is the site of 143 out of the 299 national cases so far. Keeping the city operational to protect the country's fragile economy, which had started shrinking even before the pandemic, would be a betrayal to Tanzanians.
The government must also ban religious gatherings. It makes no sense to shut down schools and universities while keeping open churches, mosques, bars and restaurants. If the Mecca's grand mosque and the Rome St Peter's Basilica can close due to COVID-19, Tanzanians can be called upon to pray from home too.
Unless President Magufuli changes direction immediately, his ill-considered religious approach will have disastrous consequences for both Tanzania and the region. Many lives will be unnecessarily lost, while the economy will not be spared. If we do not lock down at least parts of Tanzania and knock out COVID-19, then COVID-19 will knock us down and the world will lock us out.
Deogratias Munishi is the Head of Foreign Affairs of Tanzania’s main opposition party Chadema and former Secretary General of the Chadema Youth Council (BAVICHA).