Vaccines for Tanzania on #CommonwealthDay

Tanzania and the UK have strong connections, in particular through the Commonwealth Association.

The Commonwealth is unique as member states have no power over one another; instead, countries with diverse social, political, and economic backgrounds are regarded as equal in status and cooperate within a charter of shared values. The values include promoting democracy, human rights, good governance, individual liberty, free trade, multilaterism and world peace. It is fair to say since President Magufuli came to power, his government are in breach of almost all the Commonwealth goals and values. Lets go through the evidence:

1. Democracy: Tanzania Election Watch this week concluded the election last year was not free and fair. Opposition party leaders were arrested and police vehicles patrolled Pemba and Zanzibar Islands, where security forces shot and killed several civilians on claims of being aligned with the opposition. To give this context, Zanzibar is semi-autonomous. Imagine this happening in the UK’s devolved nations.

2. Human Rights: Tanzania has not published COVID-19 stats since May 2020 when it logged 509 positive cases. The Tanzanian authorities have refused to participate in COVAX advocating herbal remedies and prayer. Individuals who do call out the government’s negligence are subjected to severe reprisals and a crackdown on journalists reporting the pandemic. “Access to information is an essential part of the fight against COVID-19, yet the Tanzanian government is choosing to censor journalists and media outlets who report on the disease”said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

3. Good Governence: Despite a marked increase in deaths attributed to “respirstory” illness (Tanzania dies not allow COVID-19 testing) including that of the Vice President of Zanzibat, Magufuli continues to advocate prayer and herbal remedies. I watched in horror as Dorothy Gwajima the Health Minister held a press briefing that looked more like a poorly put together cooking programme. She blended a concoction of ginger, onions, lemon and pepper, and claimed this vegetable smoothie would ward off coronavirus. People are dying in Tanzania, how is this good governance?

4. Individual Liberty: Magufuli started hunting LGBT individuals and activists in 2018 putting together a team of officials and police that would target gay people, who could face lengthy prison sentences, intensifying discrimination.

5. Multilaterism: ah, yes! Multiple countries pursuing a common goal. According to the Lancet, Tanzania is one of four African nations refusing to participate in COVAX, the global vaccination program. Given recent reports of the virus mutating and affecting vaccine efficacy, we are doomed if Tanzania continues to give the virus a sanctuary.

So, here we are celebrating Commonwealth Day when one of the club members is breaking all the rules. Time to call out Tanzania or reconsider its position in the Commonwealth. Time to act.

Another day, more bleak news from #Tanzania

I woke up to 22 messages on my WhatsApp. These days, I get really nervous when I see so many messages, gone are the easy days of funny forwards. These days it can only mean bad news – and it was. A family friend aged 38 died leaving his wife and mother in hospital, all suspected with “pneumonia” the codeword for COVID in Tanzania. Since January of this year, I have lost eight family (including my father) and friends. I hold President Magufuli wholly responsible. His COVID denial, refusal to test, mixed messaging and fostering an environment of fear have led to these and many other deaths in the country.

When I say fear, it is real. Last week a member of my family was stopped by the police in Arusha for wearing a face mask. This isn’t a typo, the police stopped them because they were wearing a face mask. Which really is ironic as some of the press in the UK are querying whether, we in the UK should be wearing two masks as worn by President Joe Biden. I am aware there are people in the West who feel wearing a mask is an imposition and an infringement of ones rights. Consider yourself lucky, at least you have a voice and you can assert your thinking. Meanwhile, back in Arusha the police threatened to lock the member of my family and it was only because they lied and claimed to have a “respiratory” illness they were able to go home. So now, people in Tanzania have to pretend to be sick in order to exercise protective measures against COVID-19. How do you even begin to get your head around this one.

Language has the power to encourage or perpetuate and in Tanzania, President Magufuli has adopted seriously derogative language, for example by calling the COVID pandemic “satanic” and a “white mans disease”. He has also cast doubt around the COVAX vaccination programme saying, “You [Tanzanians] should stand firm. Vaccinations are dangerous. If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for Aids by now; he would have found a vaccination of tuberculosis by now; he would have found a vaccination for malaria by now; he would have found a vaccination for cancer by now,” Misinformation and conspiracy theories with regards to COVID and vaccines aren’t a Tanzanian problem, in fact Public Health experts and governments globally are having to debunk misinformation. In Tanzania Magufuli is sowing division and inequality. In one of the worlds poorest countries, the absence of government guidelines means those who can afford it are accessing private medical care and are able to leverage foreign networks / information to keep themselves safe. These individuals will quite likely privately procure the COVID vaccine also. The political class will be fine too, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Magufuli himself privately has the jab. Meanwhile basic information on health and safety in Tanzania is becoming a rare commodity available exclusively to the elite. How is this fair?

According to the Tanzania Investment Centre, The UK is the leading investor in Tanzania with 35% share of foreign investment with Tanzania being one of only five African countries with which the UK has signed a High Level Prosperity Partnership. How is the UK government standing by and letting the COVID situation in Tanzania unfold? Monday 8th March marks Commonwealth Day, and Tanzania is a member of the association. The opportunity to lobby for change is there for the taking, will the UK government act? I doubt it… nothing would make me happier hope to be proven wrong.

The UK is concerned about the Brazil COVID variant, what about Tanzania?

I am really grateful to Jason Burke for writing about the situation in Tanzania and for giving me the opportunity to share my story and to raise much needed awareness. I feel like I am living in a parallel universe, the messages on my WhatsApp are bleak with daily news of someone we know taken into hospital with so called “pneumonia” (the code word for COVID in Tanzania). Meanwhile in the UK COVID sceptics think the Brazil variant is some sort of government conspiracy. At a personal level it is so difficult to get my head around all this given I not only lost my father to COVID but also five relatives and friends since January this year.

I get it, people are tired of lockdown and there is no denying the economic and mental health impact of the pandemic in the UK and beyond. I have struggled too and yet having experienced first hand the situation in Tanzania I am grateful to live in the UK, where the government is at least taking the virus seriously by leading the vaccination programme and providing financial support through the furlough and other schemes. The UK governments response hasn’t been perfect and I don’t want to detract from the difficulties people are facing – I just want to share a different perspective and recognise we have much to be grateful for in the UK.

TZ and COVID-19

Last week, Dorothy Gwajima the Health Minister held a press briefing that looked more like a poorly put together cooking programme. She blended a concoction of ginger, onions, lemon and pepper, and claimed this vegetable smoothie would ward off coronavirus. Imagine Matt Hancock pulling that stunt, would we stand for it? What is happening in Tanzania matters. The government stopped testing for COVID in April 2020 and last updated its number of infections at 509 cases. The Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention director, John Nkengasong said last week, “if we do not fight this [COVID] as a collective on the continent, we will be doomed”. I believe this applies to us in the UK and beyond. We live in a interconnected world with porous borders which the virus does not recognise. Given there aren’t any social distancing measures in place in Tanzania, one can’t help but wonder how the virus is mutating and whether it is a matter of time before the “Tanzanian variant” emerges potentially derailing the entire vaccination programme.

So, what can you do?

  1. Write to your MP – Magufuli’ s government will respond to international pressure especially if foreign aid is likely to be withheld.
  2. Email the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. You can contact them at fcdo.correspondence@fcdo.gov.uk. The Minister for Africa is James Duddridge. We must hold our government to account.
  3. Share this blog or the Guardian article on your social media feed to help raise awareness of the crises in Tanzania.

Why is the European Union releasing COVID support funding to a government that denies the virus exists..?

I started this blog having lost five friends and family members (including my father) since January of this year. Their deaths have been attributed to “pneumonia” the codeword for COVID in Tanzania. Last night a close friend in Moshi was grieving the loss of his brother and sister-in-law. They died within days of each other, “pneumonia” was mentioned. They leave behind two young children.

President Magufuli in recent days has admitted Tanzania has a COVID problem which is a start. However there is much in the way of mixed messaging and stoking of division. For example, President Magufuli claims COVID is a “white mans” disease and vaccines are not to be trusted. In a country where public health awareness with regards to COVID is pitifully lacking this is a dangerous message. Tanzania cannot be a lone nation and not vaccinate its citizens. Eventually, President Magufuli will give in but changing the public’s mind having fed all this propaganda is going to be one hell of a challenge.

Almost everyone in my network has responded with, “I had no idea about the situation in Tanzania”. Why have we become this insular? I don’t know the answer myself. What is frustrating is our governments approach which is embarrassing to say the least. The G7 and our commitment to the Commonwealth provides a powerful platform to advocate change. Instead, our man in Dar-es-Salaam, David Concar (British Ambassador to Tanzania) placated President Magufuli by attending an official event and not bothering to wear a mask. Meanwhile, the European Union Office in Dar-Es-Salaam gave 27 million Euros in COVID relief funds, to a government that continues to deny the virus exists. Go figure! The white mans face masks are not safe but Magufuli has no qualms accepting his shilling.

We have to hold our government and institutions such as the European Union accountable. None of us will be free of COVID otherwise. We have been told the virus is mutating. The Tanzanian government stopped testing in April 2020. Given the increase in deaths attributed to “pneumonia” since October, who knows what mutation of COVID we are dealing with in Tanzania. The virus does not recognise borders…