Covid in Tanzania: Vaccination campaign gets underway

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President Samia Suluhu receiving the Covid-19 vaccineImage source, STATEHOUSE TANZANIA
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President Samia has assured Tanzanians that the Covid-19 vaccines are safe

President Samia Suluhu has been given a Covid vaccine at the start of Tanzania's vaccination rollout.

The move marks a break with her predecessor, John Magufuli, a prominent coronavirus sceptic, who died in March from heart complications.

The former president did not believe in the value of vaccines, and Tanzania did not sign up to vaccination campaigns.

What has changed under the new president?

At the ceremony to start the vaccination rollout, President Samia urged all Tanzanians to get vaccinated, saying the country was "not an island."

In June, she let international organisations and foreign embassies import vaccines for their employees.

Tanzania also applied to join the global Covax vaccine distribution scheme, and received a batch of one million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine donated by the US government on 24 July.

The semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar started their own vaccination campaign about two weeks ago, using China's Sinovac vaccine.

The African Union also says Tanzania is participating in its vaccine-purchasing programme.

In May, President Samia had appeared doubtful about vaccines, when she told Muslim officials she had noted their concerns about vaccine safety and her government would not accept "all that is brought to us or [what] we are told to do".

"So, even on this issue of vaccines, we will satisfy ourselves before deciding whether to use them or not," she said.

It's worth noting that some of the former president's followers continue to be opposed to their use.

For example, evangelical preacher Josephat Gwajima, who is a member of parliament, has claimed without any evidence that they can interfere with human DNA.

What has the new president said about Covid?

She has admitted the virus is circulating and urged people to take precautions such as:

  • hand-washing
  • using masks
  • social distancing
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
President Samia Suluhu took over in March

In June 2020, after going through the first wave of the pandemic, President Magufuli declared the country coronavirus free and, at least initially, did not encourage the use of face masks or indicate Tanzania would acquire vaccines.

"I believe... that the corona disease has been eliminated by God," he said.

President Magufuli also promoted:

  • prayers
  • physical fitness
  • steam inhalation
  • herbal remedies
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Steam inhalation was promoted by the former president of Tanzania

And on steam inhalation and other remedies, President Samia's break with her predecessor has been less categorical.

She has said:

  • people should not be discouraged from using steam inhalation and she had read it could be effective in the early stages of infection
  • it is not right to "totally ridicule and say no" to herbal remedies

"If you feel steam inhalation helps you, go and do it," President Samia said.

"If you feel taking a particular drug will help you, do it."

Tanzania Medical Association head Shadrack Mwaibambe says the government should not be talking about it "because we [the authorities] have decided to follow the science".

What actions has the new president taken?

When she took over, President Samia formed a task force on Covid-19.

  • the virus's presence should be publicly acknowledged
  • Covid data should be made public
  • Tanzania should join global vaccine-sharing programme Covax

In the early days of her presidency, President Samia would usually appear in public without a mask.

But she did wear a mask on some foreign visits (in Uganda and Kenya) and has increasingly been seen with one in Tanzania.

Government agencies have also been calling on people to wear masks.

And there are new guidelines for the reopening of schools, including:

  • wearing masks
  • social distancing
  • ensuring hand-washing facilities and sanitisers are available

The change in the political position has allowed doctors to work more freely, diagnose patients and treat them without fear of repercussions from the authorities, Shadrack Mwaibambe of the Tanzanian Medical Association says.

What about official coronavirus data?

When the pandemic began in 2020, Tanzania did publish official data for infections and deaths - but then suddenly stopped.

The government is now publishing data, but not as frequently as other countries, and with no mention of the number of tests conducted, or of daily infection rates.

The health ministry recently said it would be announcing Covid-19 statistics every two weeks.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Tanzania stopped giving out Covid data last year, under President John Magufuli

In late June, at an official function in Dar es Salaam, President Samia announced: "We have about 100-plus [Covid] patients, among them not less than 70 are on oxygen and the others are on normal treatment," she said.

On 21 July, the ministry said there were 682 Covid-19 patients in hospitals across the country, 176 having been confirmed the previous day.

It also announced 29 deaths, but without giving any details.

However, Dorothy Gwajima, the health minister, said: "Remember these [deaths] are from those who reported to health centres and it is likely that there are others at home."