Tanzania: How Covid-19 Became a Non-Issue in Tanzania's Elections

Graffiti in Tanzania raising awareness about Covid-19.
25 February 2021

The pandemic neither affected the running of the October 2020 elections nor was it an issue on the campaign trail. Why?

When Tanzania discovered its first case of COVID-19 in mid-March 2020, it prompted plenty of speculation about how the pandemic would affect the elections scheduled for 28 October later that year. As we have seen around the world, COVID-19 can have significant impacts on elections. Some countries have cancelled or postponed their polls, while others have contended with additional organisational challenges and barriers to participation. In some elections, the handling of the pandemic has become a key political issue.

In Tanzania's elections, however, very few of these issues were evident. From the outset, President John Magufuli was adamant that the elections would go ahead as scheduled. Both the election campaigns and polling day took place without significant COVID-19-related safety measures. And while the government was accused of restricting political freedoms of opposition parties and civil society groups, these repressive measures were not justified with reference to the pandemic. The handling of COVID-19 was also not a prominent issue in the election despite widespread criticism of the government's response before official campaigning began on 26 August.

Why was this the case?

Why wasn't the running of the election affected?

The reasons why COVID-19 was a non-issue in the election lies in the country's response to the pandemic. This began, in March and April, with a mixture of some common and some less common measures. On the one hand, the government issued public health messages, closed schools, and banned most public gatherings. On the other, it decided not to close churches and mosques and promoted unproven herbal remedies and the inhaling of steam to prevent and treat COVID-19.

In May, Tanzania's response became more unusual. President Magufuli alleged that the country's national testing lab had been sabotaged by "imperialists", citing as evidence samples of a papaya, quail and goat that had reportedly tested positive for coronavirus. From that point on, the government stopped releasing data on the pandemic. The last officially recorded case of COVID-19 from mainland Tanzania was on 29 April, and the last from Zanzibar on 8 May.

A couple of weeks later, Magufuli announced that the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals had declined. The restrictions designed to reduce viral transmission were lifted shortly after. And in early-June, the president declared that coronavirus had been eliminated from Tanzania entirely.

From then until the end of the election, the government's official position remained that the country was free of COVID-19. It was not until mid-February 2021 that government spokesperson Hassan Abbas acknowledged there were active cases in the country, although he insisted the virus was still under control.

The government's official line on COVID-19 is the main reason that the organisation of the election was little different to usual. Voter registration had occurred with some precautions in place, but once President Magufuli declared Tanzania free of the virus, there were few significant measures to reduce transmission during the election's remaining phases. It would have been difficult for the National Electoral Commission, which is often criticised for lacking independence, to justify introducing potentially expensive measures to address a problem that did not officially exist.

Why wasn't COVID-19 a campaign issue?

It is harder to explain why the Magufuli administration's response to the virus was not more heavily contested within Tanzania at the time of the election, particularly as it was still being criticised in international media.

One reason lies in the fact that the government took measures to ensure that it was difficult for criticism to emerge. Since March, there have been several incidences of media houses, journalists and individual social media users facing sanctions due to their reporting on the pandemic. This followed Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa's instruction to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority to have persons circulating misinformation about the virus apprehended and the government's subsequent announcement of an exclusive list of officials permitted to release COVID-19-related information.

Censorship is only part of the explanation, however, as the government is unable to fully supress criticism. Not only have its policies on COVID-19 been attacked both before and after the election, but the government was also criticised for other actions during the election, including allegations of electoral fraud.

Another possible explanation is that many members of the public believed the government's narrative. Two rounds of nationally representative surveys, conducted by IPSOS-Tanzania for the UKRI GCRF/Newton Fund African Elections during the COVID-19 Pandemic Project, tested this premise. In the second round, which took place in December 2020, only 33.27% agreed with the statement "COVID-19 was eradicated in this country". However, other questions suggest that few respondents viewed the pandemic as a serious problem. For example, during the first round that took place in mid-October, only 4 of 1,370 respondents mentioned COVID-19 when asked "What are the top three health conditions affecting people in your local area now?"

Other evidence also suggests that there was a common perception that coronavirus had at least been supressed at the time of the election. Daily life had returned to something close to the pre-coronavirus normal, with most Tanzanians engaging in economic activities and socialising without any precautions. Rumours of people falling ill with COVID-19 were also not circulating to the same extent as earlier in the crisis, either online or through personal networks.

The major opposition parties, which had initially been very critical of the government's response, also had reasons not to use the pandemic as part of their campaign strategy. They needed to hold meetings and mass rallies to promote their platforms, something which would not have been consistent with claiming that COVID-19 was a significant risk. They may also have been concerned that calling for more restrictions would be unpopular, given their social and economic impact. In 2021, as rumours of a "second wave" have started to spread, that the opposition has again taken more critical positions.

What this means for other elections

The fact that Tanzania's reaction to the pandemic has been unusual makes it difficult to draw general conclusions. However, the Tanzanian example shows that governments need to embrace comprehensive COVID-19-related safety measures if they are to be introduced during elections. The Tanzanian case also warns against assuming the pandemic will be the prominent issue in all upcoming elections. Rather, voters in different circumstances, and with differing perceptions about the severity of the pandemic, will continue to be interested by other issues. Political parties will also take strategic decisions that determine the extent to which COVID-19 becomes a dominant issue.

The UKRI GCRF/Newton Fund African Elections during the COVID-19 Pandemic Project has been following elections in Tanzania, Ghana, and the Central African Republic. It focuses on how the risks of COVID-19 transmission have been mitigated and how the pandemic affects political participation.

Robert Macdonald is a Research Fellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. He is currently working on research projects relating to COVID-19 and elections, election observation, and digital data.

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