Faith groups and religious leaders need to join efforts in #Tanzania to tackle the COVID crises

Today I have written to the following faith groups and religious leaders:

  • Most Reverend, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
  • His Eminence, Archbishop Angaleos
  • Roman Catholic Church, UK
  • Methodist Church, UK
  • Institute of Jainology
  • His Eminence, Archbishop of Birmingham
  • UK Bahai
  • The Council of European Jamaats
  • National Council of UK Ismaili Jamaat
  • Sikh Federation UK
  • BAPS Swaminarayan Sansth
  • The Dawoodi Bohoras

From a western lens, this may feel like a strange step to take and may conjure ideas of exploitation and imperialism. In many developing countries, religion plays a significant role in society: gender and family relations, healthcare and education, financial practices and even politics. The faith groups I have written to have significant presence in Tanzania and a collective approach can lead to change.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, a bit of context. Following independence in 1961, Mwalimu Nyerere adopted the concept of ‘African socialism’ and introduced Ujamaas, a Swahili term meaning familyhood. The policy was to nationalise health, education, resettle scattered rural population into villages and expand the government’s role in production and service provision. Secular socialism separated religion and the state, although freedom of religion was allowed. I am not a historian. My reflections may not be entirely accurate; as I understand it, the policy failed and plunged Tanzania into further poverty. Many external issues compounded the economic crises, including doubling oil prices and the war with Uganda, resulting in faith-based organisations’ re-emergence.

Christianity and Islam are the most prominent religions in Tanzania. Since the early 1980s, there has been renewed growth in non-state development activities, particularly in education and, to some extent, in health, provided by religious groups. For example, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) delivers a wide range of development activities, although it doesn’t view itself as a faith-based organisation. However, a sizeable Ismaili community in Tanzania is associated with the AKDN. Faith-based organisations make up for the Tanzanian government’s gross underinvestment in health and education, vital players in fighting COVID.

However, President Magufuli’s authoritarian regime has fostered a culture of fear and not wanting to go against the government in case of reprisals. This has resulted in faith-based organisations quietly looking out for their own. For example, the Khoja Shias provide education around social distancing within their community. I have seen a similar approach taken by the Hindu and Bohora communities; however, we all need to be consistent and take a joint approach to tackle the virus. This is where I feel the faith-based organisations are failing Tanzanians. I recognise the fears on the ground; there may be a reluctance to act. For this reason, I have written to faith groups and religious leaders in the UK to lobby the government and take collective action. I have requested they take the following steps:

·      Public health education campaign: over the last 12-months, there has been inconsistent messaging from the government in Tanzania. From encouraging herbal smoothies to saunas. The basic message of social distancing and maintaining hand hygiene may have gotten lost. I recognise the various religious groups addressed in this letter may well have organised education campaigns within our respective communities; however, no one is likely to be safe without consistent effort across the country. Consideration also needs to be given to various tribal groups and how they may be engaged in this education campaign.  

·      Testing and reporting COVID cases: As a collective, consider raising this matter with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to explore how the World Health Organisation can support Tanzania with testing and reporting. The UK has strong connections with Tanzania and the association with the Commonwealth, and I feel the UK must lead the way in engaging President Magufulis government.

·      Participating in COVAX: I am proud of the UK’s support of the COVAX programme. Donating is just one aspect; we have to ensure equitable access and involve the Tanzanian government; without this, the vaccines will not reach one of the world’s poorest countries and could also derail the progress we have made in tackling in COVID.

Over the last few days, there have been unverified press reports suggesting President Magufuli may himself be unwell, having contracted COVID; we pray for his speedy recovery. As I see it, this could be an opportunity to change how the Tanzanian authorities handle COVID, and faith-based groups must be ready to step in and play their part.

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