Tanzania: Is There a Hidden Covid-19 Crisis in Zanzibar?

Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19
19 February 2021

Fear of the coronavirus superseded skepticism in Tanzania this week following the death of a well-known politician in Zanzibar. Mourners showed up at public memorials wearing face masks and brandishing disinfectant.

First Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago was buried on the island of Pemba on Thursday. His death at a hospital on the mainland the previous day reportedly came after he contracted COVID-19

Thousands thronged the public prayer services held for Hamad on the Tanzanian mainland in Dar es Salaam, a rare many wearing masks and washing their hands on-site.

The senior politician from the semi-independent Zanzibar achipelago publicly announced he was suffering from the virus three weeks ago. His death has been fueling talk of the virus on social media, with many wondering if there are in fact more active cases in Tanzania and Zanzibar than they previously thought.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Tanzanian authorities have repeatedly downplayed the pandemic -- for the most part, citizens asked very few questions in response. Currently, the public has no access to official data concerning the number of official COVID-19 cases in the country.

But as more cases come to light, and amid an evident increase in funeral services, public behavior around the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to shift.

A change in pandemic behavior

Tanzanians are now increasingly and openly taking precautions against the virus, while also urging each other to stay vigilant. Human rights activists and political opponents of President John Magufuli -- a vocal COVID-19 skeptic -- have also started to weigh in, urging the government to take the pandemic more seriously.

"They say infections are going up but they don't know exactly what's happening," one DW correspondent in Dar es Salaam who did not wish to be named said. "There are more funerals but of course the authorities are saying there is no coronavirus."

The journalist's father, a 57-year-old driver, is being treated at a private hospital in Mbeya Region in southwest Tanzania after being diagnosed with COVID-19. "We don't know where he contracted it," the journalist said.

Maria Sarungi Tsehai, the founder of the #ChangeTanzania movement promoting freedom of expression, is upfront about "state machinery that is actively covering up and denying COVID-19." A survey she started circulating on social media this week asking respondents about their thoughts and experiences during the pandemic has already started to paint a picture of an increasingly concerned population -- particularly during the second wave.

"Citizens are scared, citizens are worried, citizens are grieving loved ones," she told DW. "This COVID-19 second wave pandemic has hit us very, very hard."

Sarungui Tshehai says the change in the pandemic behavior of Tanzanian citizens and institutions has been incremental and mostly at a community level. Meanwhile, the response of Tanzanian authorities has barely shifted.

"What we are seeing on certain levels is all this indirect messaging around taking precautions." Sarungi Tsehai explains. "The government is using euphemisms about masks to prevent so-called respiratory diseases, but they're also still recommending remedies such as steam inhalation."

Are all tourists really testing negative?

In Zanzibar, it's almost business-as-usual for the tourism industry. The welcome wave of international tourists are being asked to wear masks. But not everyone follows the recommendations. And people's test results are also causing some confusion.

"At the airport in Zanzibar, me and my family were the only people wearing masks in a super crowded environment," one DW correspondent who visited Zanzibar last month said. "There were four planes going to Russia alone."

He tested negative on departure in Zanzibar but positive when he landed in South Africa.

"My theory is that all tourists are receiving a negative test," he says. The risk of contracting the virus had frequently crossed his mind during his visit to the island, despite the precautions he took.

The pandemic has transformed the archipelago from a vacation destination for the wellness-minded to a coronavirus escape haven for middle-class foreign tourists who are skirting pandemic restrictions elsewhere.

The majorty are from Russia or other countries in Eastern Europe, traveling on package tours that would otherwise have taken them to destinations such as Turkey or Egypt where pandemic restrictions apply.

Unease among Zanzibari locals

But although many are thankful for the droves of travellers, who are helping pump money back into its tourism-dependent economy, many Zanzibaris are feeling uneasy about the invisible threat of the virus.

"Every time I get a call from home, my heart is beating fast and I'm thinking my mother has passed away," says Mohammed Khelef, a DW journalist based in Germany. "The posts that someone has died are coming in daily on social media."

Hamad's death has hit many Zanzibaris hard. He had once dominated the opposition political landscape. Khelef says locals saw him as a guru and called him "Maalim," or teacher.

However, many are reluctant to speak with foreign media outlets, making it hard to guage the public reaction when Hamad initially shared the news that he had contracted COVID-19.

Around that time, the DW correspondent who tested positive for the virus said few people in Zanzibar were showing their concern. "People rather had the feeling that President Magufuli was right," he says.

Why break with COVID convention?

Khelef says the pandemic was politicized in Tanzania from the outset. Initial efforts to put protocols in place such as contact tracing to curb the spread of the coronavirus were soon reversed.

"The president decided to bulldoze everyone," says Khelef.

Magufuli has declared Tanzania free of coronavirus and has advised citizens who are feeling unwell to use herbal remedies.

Khelef says there is a climate of fear in Tanzania, but with no access to recourse, many citizens blindly follow the government, too.

"If the government has no official protocol, many are pushed into denial," he says.

Mimi Mefo contributed to this article.

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