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.

Powerful piece from Kim Sanderson about COVID denial in Tanzania

I am incredibly grateful to North East Bylines for shining a light on Tanzania’s plight. Kim Sanderson’s piece ‘Hakuna COVID’ asks a fundamental question, why is the UK not intervening? We used to take pride in our diplomatic efforts to help bring about change. Like many in the UK, I tuned into the Commonwealth Day celebrations on Sunday on BBC1. The Tanzanian flag visible second from the left as The Prince of Wales spoke of the universal devastation caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic. I was urging him from my living room to go further and urge all 54 member states to respond jointly or encourage multilateral cooperation, especially member states who have yet to engage in in a collective approach. So much can be said without naming names and still have an impact. I feel like this was a missed opportunity, and a nation of 60-million citizens have been let down.

The Pope’s visit to #Iraq gives a dangerous narrative to #Magufuli.

According to Tanzania’s Catholic Church more than 25 priests and 60 nuns have recently died with COVID like symptoms. ‘COVID like’ because the Tanzanian President has of course claimed the country was cured of the coronavirus with prayer. Since the last reported cases in April 2020, there is no COVID testing on the mainland. The loss of lives is unforgivable, almost every Tanzanian is affected directly or indirectly. We should all care and be outraged by Magufuli’s actions. In Tanzania, there are no measures in place to cut transmission offering the virus a sanctuary to mutate and pose a very real threat to the vaccination programme.

Now, you may be thinking what has the Pope’s visit to Iraq got to do with Tanzania? Well, President Magufuli is a devout catholic and his visit inadvertently gives Magufuli’s mishandling of COVID in Tanzania credence. Since the start of the year, there has been a marked increase in people dying of “pneumonia” the codeword for COVID in Tanzania. In February during the funeral of his Chief Secretary, Magufuli said to mourners, “Maybe we have wronged God somewhere..” and declared three days of prayer, urging people to go to church and the mosque. I am convinced the deaths of the Tanzanian clergy are linked to the call to pray by Magufuli in February this year.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Pope and his vision for interfaith tolerance. I also recognise Christian minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere have suffered persecution. The Pope meeting Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is not only a historic moment but also symbolic to muslims and christians worldwide. Whilst I am certain the Iraqi and Vatican officials will take all necessary precautions, to a president [Magufuli] who has used religion and prayer to rid himself of responsibility, the Pope’s visit will be spun to validate negligent leadership. I just wish this important visit was delayed and it makes me very angry to think this historic visit will be spun by one of the most unchristian presidents to justify his criminal handling of COVID in Tanzania.

One step forward, ten steps back

There was a moment of euphoria yesterday, my WhatsApp was alive with messages, “President Magufuli has acknowledged Tanzania as a COVID problem”. The messages kept coming. I couldn’t believe it.

The joy was short lived. the sight of Dr. Mpango our Finance Minister coughing and gasping during a news conference is nothing short of shocking to watch. There were rumors circulating on social media he was being treated for COVID. Clearly, he was coerced into leading the news conference. Dr. Mpango attributed his illness to ‘pneumonia’ the code word for COVID-19 in Tanzania. Meanwhile, the Deputy Speaker of Tanzania continued with her biding for the administration. She admitted she had COVID not once, but twice and proceeded to dismiss it as no big deal. I wonder how she knew she had COVID in the first place, she must have disobeyed Magufuli and got a test. But, then Magufuli maintains COVID tests are bogus… I am confused.

Whilst the Tanzanian government was doing its best sending out mixed messages, neighboring Kenya has put stringent measures on its borders with Tanzania and the US Embassy changed travel advice to Level 4 – do not travel. The US Embassy has been a vocal critic of the situation in Tanzania and the handling of the COVID pandemic, whilst our man in Dar-Es-Salaam, David Concar (the British Ambassador to Tanzania) is suspiciously quiet. On 19th January of this year, Labour MP Stephen Doughty asked the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what assessment he has made of the adequacy of the response of the Government of Tanzania to the COVID-19 pandemic; and what support the Government is providing to that country. It turns out our government has been putting messages on local radio on hand washing and social distancing. Would someone like to follow up and ask the government how they think this little campaign has gone? Perhaps a radio campaign debunking herbal remedies as a cure for COVID would’ve been more useful. Meanwhile, a friend in Arusha got in touch yesterday, to say they had their worse night yet. Ambulances collecting bodies from peoples home in the cover of darkness. I have personally lost six relatives and friends since January.

What will it take to challenge President Magufuli?

The situation in Tanzania poses a threat to all of us. The virus has no borders. Tanzania could soon become ground zero for new COVID variants derailing the progress we have made with vaccines. It really is in all our interests to speak up, write to your MP, share the plight of Tanzania on your Social Media or reach out to your church community (Magufuli is a devout Catholic and this could be a way to influence change). Do something, please.

Letter to His Holiness, Pope Francis

I am writing to you to express my fears about the situation with regards to COVID-19 in Tanzania. The current government is denying the existence of COVID-19 and the President believes the country has been cured of the virus through prayer. President John Magufuli is a devout Christian and I know first-hand the power of prayer and comfort it can provide. His Holiness, you have been a strong advocate of the vaccine and even said recently refusal is akin to suicidal denialism. President Magufuli has refused to participate in the COVAX programme advocating herbal remedies instead. There has been some change in messaging from the Magufuli administration, after WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom issued a statement urging the President to share data and participate in the vaccination programme.

The situation in Tanzania goes beyond the issue of vaccinations. The codeword for COVID in Tanzania “pneumonia” and since January of this year, I have lost five friends and relatives including my father, none of them were tested for COVID and received steam therapy along with antibiotics and steroids, in hope that something would work. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and as it stands 60-million Tanzanians are at risk. There is an urgent need for testing, PPE for medical staff and a coordinated public health education campaign. I am writing to ask for your help in engaging President Magufuli and to connect with him as a Christian to reconsider his approach to COVID in Tanzania.

Please note: this is a copy of the letter sent by postal mail to His Holiness.

Tanzanians need help to tackle COVID-19

I lost my father, 82 three days before his birthday. Since January of this year, we have lost three family members and their deaths have been attributed to pneumonia. I watched helplessly on FaceTime as my father struggled to gulp air, his oxygen levels were between 76-80 and upon admission he was unable to have Oxygen due to the high volume of patients requiring oxygen. The physician who treated my father was afraid to mention the disease for the fear of government reprisals. She tried everything, from giving my dad steam therapy, antibiotics and steroids’ to trying Vitamin D supplements. Nothing worked. I recognise, my fathers age puts him at a high risk however a small part of me wonders, had the physician been able to test for COVID he would have had a very different treatment plan. Our pain might have eased a little knowing he was receiving the treatment he needed.

Ask any Tanzanian they’ll say, it is COVID and people are dying.

Whilst in the west we are fed up of lockdowns and have a glimmer of hope with the vaccination programme, people in Tanzania have been told by the president to pray. President Magufuli has continued to play down the seriousness of the disease even as neighboring countries such as Kenya and Uganda closed borders. The government last released numbers on COVID-19 in April, 2020, there had been 509 positive cases, 21 deaths and 183 recoveries – a figure unchanged to date.

I recently mentioned the plight of Tanzanians to friends and colleagues, there is little awareness of the situation. Following the death of Seif Sharif Hamad, Vice President of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar Island the World health organisation issued a statement urging President Magufuli to cooperate. In response, the President announced three days of prayer. Whilst there is a time and a place for prayer and I do not question the comfort it offers, Tanzanians needs science and leadership to tackle COVID. What will it take for something to change?

A helpless daughter…

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I am a Tanzanian living in the UK. I am riddled with guilt for living in a developed country with healthcare and a COVID-19 vaccination programme. I am sharing my story and that of friends and family in Tanzania, people are afraid to speak out against President Magufuli as they watch their loved ones die. Magufuli’s government is denying the existence of COVID-19 and the propaganda in the country is the virus has been cured through prayer with Tanzania being free of the Corona Virus. Tanzania is one of the worlds poorest countries and I recognise the comfort prayer can provide. This is why I believe Tanzania needs prayer and science to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

President John Magufuli has continued to play down the seriousness of the disease even as neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Uganda have closed borders and implemented lockdowns. The government last released numbers on COVID-19 in April 2020, there had been 509 positive cases, 21 deaths and 183 recoveries – a figure unchanged to date. The Tanzanian authorities have refused to participate in the COVAX programme dismissing vaccines and instead advocating herbal remedies. Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, “we will not end the pandemic anywhere unless we end it everywhere”.

Please help, share the plight of Tanzanians on social media, write to your MP, contact your church (President Magufuli is a devout Christian) – anything! The lives of nearly 60 million citizens are at risk not to mention the economic cost that will plunge millions into further poverty. In speaking out for the plight of Tanzanians we are making sure we take a collective approach to bringing the COVID-19 crises to an end.

Please do also follow me on Twitter @VaccineTanzania