The new President of Tanzania Samia Suluhu Hassan has announced intention to form a technical committee that would advise the government on how to approach the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tanzania has—for the past 9 months—approached the pandemic unconventionally, stirring worldwide controversy under the administration of President John Magufuli who died of heart disease on March 17.
Magufuli doubted vaccines and wearing of face masks but promoted unproven herbal remedies such as steam inhalation. He repeatedly said Tanzania was COVID-19 free, insisting “God had healed the nation of the disease after a three day prayer” but his stance was criticized by the Catholic Church. Data reporting on COVID was put on hold.
However, the new president has marked a difference with her predecessor.
“It is unwise to mute, reject or accept without research evidence on what works or does not work,’’ said President Samia Suluhu after swearing in government leaders in the country’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
“I intend to form a technical committee to review this COVID issue, to examine global remedies scientifically and thereafter advise the government professionally,’’ she said, adding that the committee would advise on how to cooperate with the international community in fighting the pandemic.
“We cannot isolate ourselves as if we are an Island but also we cannot accept everything imposed on us. We cannot just continue reading about COVID from the rest of the world. We must do something on our own,’’ she emphasized.
Her remarks come two days after local scientists said they had been restricted from conducting studies on COVID-19, especially study designs with methodologies that seemed to contradict the stance of President Magufuli’s administration.
During a virtual meeting, the scientists called for an open space for research on the COVID-19 impact and the political will to roll out strong public health measures, including vaccination.
After many months of denying the pandemic, the government had started urging precautions following the death of high profile leaders, including the Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice-president of Zanzibar, who died on 17 February. He was the only high-profile government leader to have made it public that he tested positive for COVID-19.
Scientists have been left in the dark due to lack of mass testing and data on the disease. COVID-19 statistics in Tanzania remained a top secret since last May when 509 cases and 21 related deaths were updated.
The denial of the pandemic led to many deaths that are still uncounted until today, said the Immediate Past President of the Medical Association of Tanzania Dr Elisha Osati.
“Going forward, we can’t ignore the need to protect lives. There is overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines can protect lives of people with severe illness. We can’t continue debating about whether we need the vaccines or not. We need them,’’ suggested Osati during a virtual event involving scientists in Tanzania and the diaspora.
It remains to be seen if President Samia’s push for transparency will translate into real impact on dealing with COVID-19 in Tanzania