Days after President John Mafuguli finally admitted Tanzania has a coronavirus problem, after months of apparent denial and increasing warnings of a resurgence in infections, the sight of the country’s finance minister coughing and gasping during a news conference to defend the state of his health has left many in shock.
Finance Minister Philip Mpango, who did not reveal what he was suffering from, spoke to about 10 reporters on Tuesday at a hospital in the capital, Dodoma, after rumours that he had died of COVID-19. A recent spate of deaths attributed to “pneumonia” and “respiratory challenges” has struck both government officials and members of the public.
Mpango, who was not wearing a mask, was flanked by a doctor and a hospital director – both also maskless. Behind him stood doctors and nurses who were wearing masks.
The minister, his voice trembling, had a coughing fit at the news conference to announce he was being discharged from hospital after 14 days.
“I came to the hospital with my oxygen cylinder but in the last three days I did not use it because my health has improved,” he said, briefly breaking down as he sent condolences following the recent deaths.
Tanzanians: Minister of Finance Dr Mpango is seriously ill, on a ventilator, due to COVID-19
Government: Dr Mpango is not very ill. Let's call a press conference and show you the Finance Minister. He does not even need to wear a mask.
VIDEO – THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED NEXT!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/yrDWFJDLmg
— Louis Jadwong (@Jadwong) February 24, 2021
“If you physically look at him, he was not supposed to talk at all but probably there was pressure behind,” one of the people present, who asked not to be identified, was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.
On social media, people expressed horror at the scene, including opposition leader Tundu Lissu.
“Has the intelligence of our leaders reached this level? Who allowed this patient to cough on people, instead of being in hospital for treatment or bed rest?” he wrote on Twitter. “What kind of doctor is this who was coughed on without mask? What are you trying to prove by this recklessness?”
Magufuli has insisted for months that COVID-19 had been fended off by prayer, but in recent days conceded it was still circulating after the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died of the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
On Sunday, he revealed that some of his aides and family members had contracted COVID-19 but recovered, and offered some lukewarm support for the use of masks.
“Let us all depend on God as we also take other preventive measures. I put God first and that is why I do not wear a mask.”
It came as the head of the World Health Organization appealed to Tanzania’s government to take “robust action” against COVID-19 after several travellers from the country tested positive.
In a statement, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusrenew also renewed his call for authorities to start reporting COVID-19 cases and share data – Tanzania, a country of some 60 million people, stopped releasing figures on COVID-19 in April 2020.
On Monday, the United States issued a “do not travel” warning to Tanzania, due to the spread of the virus. The next day, Oman said it would not allow people from Tanzania to enter the Gulf country for 15 days, while Kenya announced on Wednesday that its athletes were banned from competing in Tanzania’s top marathon race on Saturday over concerns about the pandemic.
Call to prayer for unspecified ‘respiratory’ illnesses
Last month, Magufuli had claimed vaccinations against COVID-19 are dangerous and instead urged Tanzanians to protect themselves from the disease by using domestic measures including steam inhalation.
He had previously questioned the efficacy of imported COVID-19 tests and urged people to pray to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
Seif Sharif Hamad, one of Tanzania’s highest-profile politicians and vice president of the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, died last week, with his political party admitting he had contracted coronavirus. Magufuli’s chief secretary also died in recent days, though the cause was not revealed.
Speaking at John Kijazi’s funeral in a nationally televised broadcast on Friday, Magufuli urged the nation to participate in three days of prayer for unspecified “respiratory” illnesses that had become a challenge to the country.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tanzanian physician Frank Minja said authorities have been speaking about COVID-19 “in very general terms” and with euphemisms, which he described as problematic.
“[Health authorities would say,] ‘You have a viral pneumonia, you have very severe pneumonia, you have difficulty breathing’; we’re talking about inventing general terms,” Minja said.
“We can’t just talk about infectious diseases in general. Yes, they have given advice in general, but we have to alert people that we have three methods that actually work against COVID-19: Masks, washing your hands and avoiding large crowds.”
Tanzanian journalist Ansbert Ngurumo concurred, saying the government did not have a hold on the coronavirus situation in the country.
“For you to be able to control the disease, you have to admit that there is a problem and then you work up to control the problem,” he told Al Jazeera. “If you don’t even track the infections, how do you control it?”