Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania – Esther Mngodo, like other Tanzanians, was relieved to hear this week government officials are finally urging people in the country to take precautions against the coronavirus – and even wear face masks.
“It is a good move,” said Mngodo, a 34-year-old resident of Dar-es-Salaam. “But much more needs to be done to increase public awareness, testing and treatment. Most importantly, we must have a clear strategy on how to navigate through these unprecedented times.”
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In a surprise change in the official stance on coronavirus, President John Magufuli on Sunday said the government had not forbidden the wearing of masks and encouraged those who wanted to do so.
However, he warned against what he claimed were faulty face coverings on sale in the country, suggesting that high coronavirus-related death rates worldwide could be linked to the uptake of such products and claiming those in Tanzania’s rural areas were less likely to fall victim to the virus because they tended not to wear them.
“The government has not forbidden mask-wearing. But we have to be careful about which masks we wear. We will perish. Don’t think we’re loved so much. Economic war is bad,” Magufuli told a congregation at a church service in Dar-es-Salaam.
“These masks which we buy in the shops- we’re killing ourselves,” he argued, before advising Tanzanians to either to make the masks themselves or use those produced locally.
Magufuli has long downplayed the severity of COVID-19, urging Tanzanians to pray, use steam inhalation and embrace local remedies to protect themselves from the respiratory disease. Tanzania stopped releasing infection numbers in April 2020, weeks before Magufuli declared the country coronavirus-free in June through divine intervention.
For Mngodo, the recent U-turn could be a result of what seems to be a deadly resurgence of infection, which has swept across the country over the past few months.
“It appears that the extent of the problem has reached to a point where the government cannot deny the severity of the problem,” said Mngodo, a media consultant.
Announcements of deaths often attributed to “the current pneumonia” or “breathing problems” have flooded social media.
Among the deceased are a number of high-profile individuals, including several university professors, a former governor of the central bank, the country’s chief secretary and Zanzibar’s first vice president, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad.
Of them, Hamad was the only person confirmed to have been infected by the novel coronavirus, as he texted his COVID-19 test results to the media. As for the others, the public has been left to speculate about the causes of their deaths, at a time when the world is stilling battling the coronavirus pandemic and many common Tanzanians have been touched by the effects of it.
These circumstances have led religious leaders and other critics, particularly on social media, to put pressure on the government to provide clear and consistent guidelines on fighting the pandemic, while also urging individuals to take precautions.
A Tanzanian medical doctor based in the United States, Frank Minja, said the change of mind is welcomed, if long overdue, and could present an opportunity. “We want to encourage [the president] to move faster in implementing what we know to be effective and implement it right away,” he said.
“I don’t want to say it’s too late, because if we say too late then it means we might as well not do anything. And because, by its nature, the pandemic attacks in waves, it is never too late to start doing the right thing,” added Minja, who has been campaigning on social media to raise awareness about the coronavirus.
Dorothy Semu, acting chairperson of the opposition ACT Wazalendo party, criticised Magufuli, saying the measures implemented when the virus first entered the country – including physical distancing and cancellation of large events – should have been kept in place.
“I am a politician but I am also a believer in science,” Semu said. “As leaders responsible for people’s lives it is important that we make our decisions based on facts. It’s like when HIV/AIDS was discovered; some people denied its presence and many lives were lost. So, I expected the president, who is also a scientist, to have continued with the past measures and we would have saved many lives.”
The new stance by Magufuli – a former teacher and industrial chemist – on mask-wearing seems to have also prompted many other public offices and officials to suddenly come forward and warn people of the dangers of coronavirus and measures individuals should take to protect themselves from the virus.
For instance, the agency which runs Dar-es-Salaam’s rapid transport buses on Monday said passengers would not be allowed to board if not wearing a mask.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health, headed by Dorothy Gwajima who has previously advocated steam inhalation and a vegetable smoothie to treat COVID-19, earlier this week issued a statement warning people against the virus and appealing to them to take precautions.
However, it insisted that it would not be recommending lockdown measures.
“As said by the president, we won last year and the economy continued to grow until we achieved middle-income economy status, and Coronavirus still existed,” said the ministry’s statement.
“We did not set lockdowns, and even now, we will not impose lockdowns because God is on our side.”