Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s sharp rejection of COVID-19 vaccines was met Thursday with criticism, concern and confusion.
Magufuli in a speech Wednesday scorned the idea of a lockdown to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and poured doubt on the effectiveness of vaccines.
He claimed that Tanzanians vaccinated abroad had brought a coronavirus variant back to the country and repeated his stance that praying and inhaling steam offered better protection.
People should stand firm because vaccinations are dangerous, Magufuli said. He contended that if whites were able to come up with vaccinations, they would have found a vaccination for AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and cancer by now.
‘Extremely dangerous’ remarks
Tanzanian opposition politicians criticized Magufuli’s words as undiplomatic and said they sent a poor message to the world.
Zitto Kabwe, a former member of parliament and a leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency party, said, “Africa is struggling because of the limited supply of vaccinations, and here you have a president of the second-largest economy in East Africa, and this president saying that vaccinations are problematic. This is extremely dangerous, and I really don’t know how deadly this comment from the president will be going forward.”
Tanzania’s government stopped reporting cases of COVID-19 in May, when it had 509 infections and 21 deaths. Magufuli said there was no need to report cases or take precautions against the virus because God had protected Tanzania from it.
Tanzanian activists and critics have been urging the government via social media to reveal COVID-19 infections in the country.
Kumbusho Dawson, an activist with the Change Tanzania Organization, said he hadn’t seen any measures by the government, but that it should be taking all necessary precautions and following the World Health Organization’s advice on fighting the coronavirus. He said people should wear masks and wash their hands to keep themselves and others safe.
The WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, also urged Tanzanians on Thursday to ramp up public health measures. She tweeted that science shows vaccines work, and she encouraged Tanzania to prepare a COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
The contrasting messages from the world and Magufuli left some Tanzanians, like Dar es Salaam resident Dorcas Mselle, confused.
She said that at least during the first wave of the pandemic, residents were given instructions on what to do, and schools were closed. But now, she said, if people decide to wear a mask or not, or to wash their hands or not, there seems to be no official objection. Mselle called the situation confusing and said Tanzanians still don’t know the extent of the problem.
Magufuli was re-elected in a disputed October election but has come under increasing criticism from opposition parties and Western governments for stifling democracy.