Tanzania’s COVID-19 containment measures have been markedly less strict than many neighbouring states, where lockdowns and travel restrictions have largely become the norm. Despite schools and universities being closed, a ban on mass public gatherings imposed, and citizens encouraged not to leave home for non-essential purposes, reports indicate daily life for the majority of working citizens has been minimally affected.
Government officials have emphasised the risk of starvation brought by lockdowns and the need to protect economic stability, with the deputy minister of health noting that ‘when you go for a total lockdown it means some will instead die of hunger.’
Although such concerns about the impact of containment measures on food security and the informal economy are widely shared across Sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania’s credibility is undermined by poorly judged and reckless public statements, notably from the presidency.
Ahead of the Easter weekend, President Magufuli repeatedly urged the public to congregate at churches and mosques, stating the virus could not survive in the bodies of the faithful. And citizens able to self-quarantine by choice were urged to ‘get out and work’ by the regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam.
Mounting speculation about infections
Officially, Tanzania already had the most COVID-19 cases of any EAC member state at the start of May. But the reality may be even worse. While neighbouring countries provide daily updates on case numbers and have begun mass testing initiatives, Tanzania has released figures sporadically or not at all. Videos circulating on social media claiming to show secretive night burials feed mounting speculation that the true extent of infections is being deliberately obscured.
Whether or not such claims are accurate, the failure of the authorities to release regular and timely updates makes them partially complicit in this growing atmosphere of uncertainty. And, although the government frames the coronavirus response as a binary choice between public health and the economic impacts of containment, these are not the only issues at stake.
Advancing threats to civil liberties under the Magufuli administration are being thrown into even sharper relief. Countless arrests have taken place under the terms of the Statistics Act of 2015, which criminalized the collection and release of non-official statistics, although a 2019 amendment softened the restrictions following sustained international pressure.
Tanzania also dropped another six places in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, with no other country having fallen further in the rankings since 2015. The epidemic may accelerate these negative trends further and reverse hard-fought gains.
The government was swift to impose legal action against anyone deemed to be spreading misinformation about the virus, with only the Ministry of Health, the prime minister and the president authorised to share details. A series of crackdowns then followed, with harsh sanctions imposed on media coverage, and allegations of journalists being arrested.
Tanzania also decided to keep its land and water borders open with no formal restriction on internal movement between regions. President Magufuli justified the decision as the need for a lifeline for landlocked countries in the region. International passenger flights continued until April 12, more than two weeks after Kenya and Uganda suspended theirs, and then reopened on May 18. Thus far arriving travellers have been expected to self-quarantine for 14 days, but in the face of prohibitive private accommodation costs, and with minimal enforcement, this rule appears to have been widely flouted and may now be dropped entirely to encourage tourism to resume.
Tanzania’s parliament is certainly unlikely to hold the government to account as opposition parties are boycotting the National Assembly after an unnamed MP tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-April and three MPs subsequently died of undisclosed causes within an 11-day period. Essential parliamentary committees and activities should be moved online where possible and secure to do so, to ensure crisis decision-making does not go entirely unchecked.
None of this is anything new. Poor government communication was a feature of Tanzania’s response to the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the World Health Organization (WHO) even issued a rare public rebuke of the Tanzanian government over its failure to provide official reports on suspected Ebola cases.
Now, as then, a lack of transparency does not only mask the scale and scope of the crisis faced, but also presents a serious barrier to international support. With general elections set to go ahead in October, government intimidation and secrecy pose an existential threat to the integrity of democracy, and will be the subject of renewed scrutiny over the coming months. But Tanzania’s international partners must not let rising case numbers, or food security concerns, entirely obscure attacks on civil liberties carried out under the cover of the epidemic.