Tanzania’s President John Magufuli is in good health and working normally, two officials said, after reports he flew abroad in critical condition with COVID-19.
Magufuli, 61, is Africa’s most prominent coronavirus sceptic. He has not been seen in public since February 27.
Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who left for Belgium after disputing his election defeat to Magufuli last year, has said the president was flown to the private Nairobi Hospital in neighbouring Kenya and then to India in a coma.
However, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa denied that, blaming the narrative on “hateful” Tanzanians living abroad.
“Tanzanians should be at peace. Your president is around, healthy, working hard,” he said in a speech after Friday prayers in the southern Njobe region. “To spread rumours that he is sick is just an outcome of hate.”
Magufuli was busy at work indoors reviewing files, Majaliwa said, adding that he spoke to him by phone on Friday morning. “I have decided to say this to give hope to Tanzanians that our president is around,” he said. “If he were sick, would I talk to him on the phone? He sent his greetings to you.”
The prime minister’s remarks, along with similar comments from Tanzania’s ambassador in Namibia, Modestus Kipilimba, were the first official reactions since concerns surfaced at the start of this week.
“He’s OK, he’s going on with his job,” Kipilimba told Namibia’s state broadcaster NBC. Neither NBC nor Tanzania’s state broadcaster showed video of Magufuli in their reports.
Tanzania’s information minister and justice minister have this week threatened those spreading rumours with jail time, without directly addressing the concerns.
The main opposition party Chadema on Friday called for an explanation on where the president is.
“We urge the government to come out publicly and say where is the president and what is his condition?” Chadema secretary-general John Mnyika told reporters in Dar-es-Salaam before the prime minister’s comments.
Kenya’s Nation newspaper had on Wednesday cited unidentified political and diplomatic sources saying that an African leader, which it did not name, was being treated for COVID-19 on a ventilator at Nairobi Hospital. The hospital has not commented.
According to the constitution, 61-year-old Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan would take over for the rest of the five-year term should the president be unable to carry out his duties.
Nicknamed “The Bulldozer”, Magufuli has frustrated the World Health Organization (WHO) during the pandemic by playing down the threat from COVID-19, saying remedies such as steam inhalation would protect Tanzanians.
The former chemistry teacher has mocked coronavirus tests, denounced vaccines as part of a Western conspiracy to take Africa’s wealth, and opposed mask-wearing and social distancing.
He also insisted for months that COVID-19 had been fended off by prayer, refusing measures such as masks and lockdowns. But last month he conceded it was still circulating after the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died of the virus.
He also changed his position and encouraged those who wanted to wear masks to do so.
“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 last month.
He advised Tanzanians to either make the masks themselves or use those produced locally.
Several Tanzanian officials have died recently, while the finance minister appeared last month coughing and gasping at a news conference outside a hospital to dispel rumours he had died of COVID-19.
Tanzania stopped reporting coronavirus data in May last year when it had reported 509 cases and 21 deaths, according to the WHO, which has urged the government to be more transparent.