Covid: The president who rejected the vaccine - but pushed steam therapy and herbal drinks

President Magufuli (left) and health ministers drinking herbal remedies (right). Credit: AP/Tanzanian Health Ministry
  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

Corona in our country has been removed by the powers of God,” Tanzania's president, John Magufuli declared in June last year.

Since then, he has continued to insist the east African country has eliminated the virus. Tanzania's medics, opposition politicians and the Catholic church are among those who have publicly denied these claims, but they don't have much data to support their cause.

Tanzania is one of few countries that refuses to publish national coronavirus statistics. It stopped updating its case numbers in May, when the total reached just over 500.

Since then, Tanzania's leading politicians have made various controversial moves related to the virus. Most recently, the health ministry admitted it had no plans to accept Covid-19 vaccines.

Coronavirus enters Tanzania

Magufuli’s dealings with Covid began in March last year. Tanzania reported its first coronavirus infection on the 16th - approximately three months after the World Health Organisation declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern.  

President John Magufuli Credit: AP

This first case was a 46-year-old Tanzanian woman who had recently flown in from Belgium. The government moved swiftly and shut down schools, universities and sports events.

Tanzania continued to report its coronavirus statistics up until May 8. The steady flow of cases dried up - since then, just over 500 cases have been reported in a country of nearly 60 million people.

God versus the virus

“All evidence points to exponential growth of the epidemic in Dar [es Salaam] and other locations in Tanzania,” the American embassy cautioned two weeks later. 

Magufuli brushed off the warning. At a church service, he announced that the might of prayer had slashed Covid-19 infections in the country.

Movement is currently not restricted in Tanzania. Credit: AP

According to the president, his son had healed from the virus by drinking ginger and lemon juice. “Now, he is doing press ups,” Magufuli claimed.

To this day, there is no scientific evidence that said concoction can cure Covid-19.

Alongside promoting unverified treatments, the president has been accused of silencing those who raise concerns about the virus.

Last summer, he fired his deputy health minister and suspended the head of the national laboratory. Magufuli accused the those processing Covid test result of being “bough to mislead”, local newspaper The Citizen reported.

Tanzania 'removes' coronavirus

With June came another heavily publicised church service.

“Corona in our country has been removed by the powers of God,” Magufuli told the congregation on June 8.

A Tanzanian truck driver is tested for coronavirus on the Kenya side of the Namanga border crossing with Tanzania. Credit: AP

According to him, the country had eliminated the virus, despite his government implementing an extremely limited lockdown.

At this point, opposition figures had estimated cases could be in the tens of thousands. No other populous countries, except for Eritrea, had declared themselves virus-free at this point.

"They said bodies will be lying on streets in Africa. But they did not know God loves Tanzania,” Magufuli said at a teacher’s conference. 

“We prayed for three days and the coronavirus is finished."

No plans for jabs

The president has continually repeated this claim, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he has rejected the coronavirus vaccine on behalf of the country.

While other African countries sought millions of doses, Magufuli called vaccines "inappropriate".

On January 27 this year, he said: “If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccinations for AIDS would have been brought... vaccines for malaria and cancer would have been found".

In response, the local Catholic authority warned residents that Tanzania was “not an island”. In a large front-page headline, its newspaper stressed: “There is corona”.

WHO also pushed back against Magufuli’s stance, urging the government to prepare for vaccines. Meanwhile, opposition leader Zitto Kabwe tweeted that Tanzanians should "ignore conspiracy theorists masquerading as rulers".

Magufuli and the health ministry have not let up, however. On Tuesday, Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima said Tanzania had "no plans" to receive vaccines.

In a demonstration, she encouraged the public to improve health and hygiene through the use of sanitisers, steam inhalation and herbal drinks. Only the first suggestion has been scientifically proven to kill Covid-19.

The following day, the health ministry denied social media claims that hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

Permanent secretary Mabula Mchembe said he had visited two major hospitals in Dar es Salaam and it was "not true that hospitals are full of corona patients as it is misinterpreted by some ill-intentioned people on social media."

The president has many Tanzanian supporters, but some worry that Tanzania is hurting itself and its economy, warning of travel bans against its citizens, the loss of tourism revenue and dangerous health implications for years.

“By denying the pandemic, Tanzania may well have put itself at the back of a very long waiting list” for vaccines, Aidan Eyakuze, who leads the Twaweza East Africa initiative promoting government transparency, wrote this month for The Citizen local newspaper.