News | Africa - East Africa - Corona Crisis Denialism or Pragmatism?

The politics of COVID-19 responses in East Africa


Tanzanians carry on daily life despite the confirmed coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on April 4, 2020. Kadri Sener Tam / Anadolu Agency / picture alliance

The world is going through tough times. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed our lives to danger, but put our very humanity to the test. Every ten seconds, a child dies of hunger in the Global South—but this has never been big news. Unlike hunger, the coronavirus has been able to transcend the North-South divide, revealing that the neoliberal state apparatuses and markets in the West which had hitherto been lauded as strong and democratic can only maximize profit for the bourgeoisie, but cannot save the lives of the majority.

Sabatho Nyamsenda is an assistant lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam and a founding member of Jukwaa la Wajamaa Tanzania (Tanzania Socialist Forum).

COVID-19 has also broken into state houses, palaces, and mansions to send signals to the neoliberal kleptocracy. Those who could read the writing on the wall have gone as far as temporarily nationalizing health care systems. “The State will take control of all private hospital facilities and manage all of the resources for the common benefit of all of our people”, announced Simon Harris, Ireland’s Minister of Health. “There can be no room for public versus private when it comes to pandemic”, he added, expecting, of course, the resumption of the status quo once the crisis is over. But as some protestors in Chile, the first laboratory of the neoliberal counter-revolution, wrote on a wall: “We won’t go back to normal, because normal was the problem.”

Those with blocked ears and a dead conscience, like Boris Johnson, would be hospitalized. His ally on the other side of the Atlantic has been fighting hard to maintain “normal”—if not at home, at least globally. Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on China, the tightening of sanctions on Iran and Cuba, as well as the military threats against Venezuela in the middle of the pandemic reveal the true face of imperialism: it can kill but cannot save lives; it has enough resources for war but not for universal health care. Trump’s recent racist gimmicks include attacking and halting US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). All that came after the WHO’s first African director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has refused to follow the dictates of the West, defended the dignity of Africans when he condemned the racist remarks of two French doctors on conducting COVID-19 vaccine tests in Africa. Characterizing the French doctors’ remarks as a racist “hangover from colonial mentality”, Dr. Tedros nailed it: “Africa cannot, will not, be any testing ground for any vaccine.” No wonder Dr. Tredos has been at the receiving end of racist slurs, death threats, and pressure to step down.

Cuba and China, led by Communist parties with strong interventionist states and active neighbourhood committees, have been effective in controlling the disease at home and are leading the way in saving lives and spreading love, hope, and solidarity around the world through medicines, devices, and medical expertise. The standing ovation and long applause that the Cuban doctors received in Italy speaks volumes about people’s appreciation of what Vijay Prashad referred to as “a revolutionary power to heal”.

East Africa’s Response

East African countries have taken different approaches to confronting COVID-19. The strictest response is that of Rwanda, which imposed a total lockdown of the whole country. Kenya and Uganda implemented a partial lockdown in urban areas through a number of measures, including closing borders, imposing a curfew, and restricting movement (e.g. banning of public transport in Uganda). Schools have been closed and religious and social gatherings banned.

These measures were imposed without thinking about the fate of the working poor, especially informal workers who constitute more than three quarters of the urban population. As such, the working poor found themselves with two choices: either stay at home, as ordered by the government, and die of starvation, or risk their lives to feed their families. They chose the latter option. After all, they live and work under the most wretched and dangerous conditions to which the government adopted the ostrich policy.

For the police, defiance of the order to stay at home meant that the working people were ready to die. Why wait for coronavirus to kill them when the police officers could use bullets? And bullets they used, causing the first fatalities before COVID-19 had claimed any lives. At least two people were shot dead in Rwanda, and two more were severely wounded in Uganda. Horrific photos of elderly female hawkers, children, and other pedestrians being severely beaten and harassed by police officers for violating the movement ban have caused uproar in social media. Among the 12 people murdered by the police in Kenya was a 13-year-old boy who was standing on the balcony of his family’s house watching the police brutalize people for violating the curfew, and a motorcycle taxi driver who was rushing a pregnant woman to the hospital. Dozens were injured in a stampede in Nairobi’s Kibera slum as they scrambled for food aid donated by a philanthropist for Easter.

Tanzania’s Response

As COVID-19 made its way to the country, Tanzania chose a different path. The response has been gradual and relaxed, depending on how the situation unfolded. As the country recorded the first cases, the government alerted the people to wash their hands using sanitizers, to cover their mouths while coughing, and to avoid unnecessary movements in crowded areas. These measures were complemented by the closure of schools, testing at airports followed by mandatory quarantine, and contact tracing. Religious congregations, open markets, and public transport were left untouched. A total lockdown of the country, the government insisted, would be suicidal for the majority.

Two groups have lauded the government’s steps: on the one hand, the pragmatists who urge a step-by-step response as the situation unfolds, paying attention to the specific context of the country and the livelihoods of the majority. On the other were the COVID-19 deniers, who dismiss the pandemic as an exaggerated hoax and/or a devilish disease to be defeated through prayers. Both groups found inspiration in the president’s statements.

On 22 March 2020, while attending a Sunday mass, President John Magufuli insisted that his government would not ban religious congregations, claiming that the coronavirus is satanic. “Corona”, he said, “cannot survive in the body of Christ; it will burn. That is exactly why I did not panic while taking the Holy Communion.” This statement may have emboldened COVID-19 deniers within the government and religious circles, some of whom have gone as far as ordering people to get out of their houses and continue with their businesses while praying for divine intervention.

Paul Makonda, the religious Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam, likened COVID-19 to HIV/AIDS, wondering why, if HIV/AIDS has not stopped people from having sex, should coronavirus stop people from going on with their daily activities? Using the few reported COVID-19 cases (most of them imported) to bolster his argument, Makonda challenged journalist to find out why coronavirus had spread in some parts of the world and not in others. This fuelled rumours in Tanzania that Black Africans and temperate zones were resistant to the virus. Bishop Josephat Gwajima, who had first promised to use prayers to keep coronavirus away from Tanzania’s borders, would later explain why Tanzania seemed to have fewer cases than its East African neighbours: the Tanzanian government had not banned religious congregations, while its East African neighbours had.

Religious institutions—while occasionally being sites of opposition to the Tanzanian government—have generally maintained a cordial relationship with the state and stuck to their traditional role of legitimizing the existing order and demobilizing the downtrodden. The recent surge in born-again Christian churches consolidated the existing neoliberal system by exhorting the downtrodden to pray for individual salvation and divine intervention to social problems.

If COVID-deniers seemed to be impressed by the President’s speech in church, pragmatists were emboldened by his address to the nation. Immediately after he left the church service on the same day (22 March), President Magufuli addressed the nation for the first time since he was elected in 2015. Urging the people to take COVID-19 seriously, he announced new measures, including the formation of a national committee to combat the virus (to be led by the Prime Minister), mandatory screening at the border, mandatory quarantine for people coming from COVID-19-affected countries, suspension of travel permits for public servants planning to travel to countries with high cases, as well as providing protective gear to immigration and health staff at the border. Religious gatherings, public transport, and other economic activities were not affected.

Government representatives who seemed to tread the pragmatic path were the Prime Minister who announced new measures and received aid, and the Health Minister who provided regular updates and led awareness campaigns.

Tanzania’s position is comparable to that of Sweden, which adopted a gradual and relaxed approach to COVID-19. While its Scandinavian neighbours have embarked on total lockdowns, Sweden did not restrict public activities or movements. Swedes are seen walking in the streets, going to work and secondary schools, restaurants, and supermarkets. Public transport and domestic flights are still operational. Swedish health authorities have insisted that responses to COVID-19 should differ from country to country. The epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who heads the Swedish Public Health Agency, has been quoted arguing that Sweden’s approach allows for the development of herd immunity to the virus.

Both Sweden and Tanzania have recorded increased cases infections, with Sweden’s fatality rate higher than that of its neighbours. Tanzania, which initially had the lowest (reported) cases in East Africa, saw new cases rise exponentially. On 13 April 2020, Tanzania announced 14 new cases, making the total 46. Four days later, the total number of cases had jumped to 147, overtaking Uganda and Rwanda. Opposition parties pushing for a total lockdown of the country felt vindicated by the sharp rise in new infections, but the Tanzanian government insisted that imposing a lockdown would be suicidal for the majority of the population.

On 15 April 2020, Prime Minister Majaliwa warned religious leaders who were conducting religious classes for children and violating physical distancing measures during prayer hours. The following day, President Magufuli requested the nation to pray for three days (from 17 to 19 April) to ask God to protect the country and heal the infected. The call was enthusiastically embraced by religious leaders who conducted prayers in the houses of worship.

As cases continued to skyrocket, reaching 257 on 20 April, a handful of religious leaders in Tanzania took the opposite move. Severine Niwemugizi, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rulenge Ngara Diocese, suspended church service for 30 days beginning on 19 April. “Let us not joke with this pandemic”, Bishop Niwemugizi warned. “I believe we love God and have faith in His omnipotence but let us not test Him too far, waiting for His miracles.” A similar move was announced by the Lutheran Bishop of Karagwe Diocese the following day.

While the two clerics took what could be termed secular measures, the pragmatic sectors of government took a religious turn. The Ministry of Health organized national prayers against COVID-19 on 22 April 2020 with the Prime Minister as the guest of honour. What explains the dramatic U-turn of the two ministries that were seen as championing the pragmatic path? In his address to the heads of defence and security forces on the same day (22 April), President Magufuli expressed his disappointment at the measures taken by the Health Ministry and other authorities, which he saw as uncritical copy-and-paste from foreign countries without regard to the situation in Tanzania. He criticized measures such as a 14-day mandatory quarantine of individuals entering the country and fumigation measures in Dar es Salaam. He also expressed doubts about the medical tools that were given as aid to Tanzania, including masks and medicines, saying that they might be a ploy by foreign countries to spread the virus in the country. President Magufuli went further and encouraged the use of traditional cures, including steam inhalation therapy, saying that water boiled at 1000C temperature would kill the virus. This was seen as a rebuttal to the deputy minister of health (a doctor by profession) who had earlier warned that steam therapy did not cure COVID-19 and could burn the skins and throat tissues of those attempting it.

“I Want My Death to Make You Angry”

Lacking the necessary political legitimacy to mobilise the people in the battle against the pandemic, and with their health systems and economies ravaged by neoliberal reforms, the ruling classes in East Africa have either resorted to violent colonial practices or chosen to bury their heads in the sand and pretend the virus is a non-threat. In both cases, the working poor are paying the heavy price.

Painful as it is, the COVID-19 crisis offers another opportunity for the working people to re-imagine alternatives and struggle to realize them. Let these few lines from Emily Peirskalla, one of the selfless medical workers who risked her life to save others, fill us with the anger, stamina, and direction we need as we reflect and act to transform our world:

If I die, I don’t want to be remembered as a hero.

I want my death to make you angry too.

I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages, and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers.

Use my death to mobilize others.

Use my name at the bargaining table.

Use my name to shame those who have profited or failed to act, leaving us to clean up the mess.

Don’t say “heaven has gained an angel.” Tell them negligence and greed has murdered a person for choosing a career dedicated to compassion and service.