When my former employer, The Citizen newspaper, issued its now-infamous public notice, informing its honorable stakeholders that I was no longer part of the company, many in Tanzania and even beyond, associated it with a Twitter post I had recently published. In it, I criticized President John Magufuli, and what the Head of State thought was a rational response to counter the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
In late March, while attending a service in a church in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital, Magufuli called the coronavirus pandemic “a diabolical disease.” He then proclaimed that he cannot order the closure of churches and mosques because nowhere can the devil, who’s responsible for the pandemic, be dealt with as vigorously and successfully as in these houses. Ironically, the statement was made against the backdrop of a call for people to avoid unnecessary gatherings and stay home. (Following an online backlash and on the very same day, the President was wise enough to give an official address to the nation where, although he did not retract his earlier statement, he warned the people of the seriousness of the pandemic and the importance of taking all necessary precautions to prevent its spread.)
In Tanzania, it is almost a taboo to criticize the president. Here, a president is perceived as a father whose statements and actions, no matter how dangerous they are to the people, cannot be called out—they have to be taken as a rule. This is why when I said in that tweet that if any Tanzanian dies of COVID-19, President Magufuli will be held responsible. I was urging him to show some leadership, especially now that the country was bracing for the worst. I was reminding the devout Catholic that people elected a president and not a pastor. Many people assumed that the tweet was responsible for my dismissal from my former employer. (It was not as I explained here in detail.)
In a WhatsApp group, of which I am a member, that tweet—not the President’s mishandling of the pandemic—stirred fierce debate, with some, with good intentions of course, urging me to be careful. To “be careful” is the euphemism for watching out. This short anecdote, if you haven’t noticed so far, speaks volumes of the current political environment that many Tanzanians find themselves in, and is the context within which the battle against the spread of the coronavirus is being waged.
With all fairness, Tanzania is not alone in the issue of having a slow national response, or in being unequipped to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases from across the African continent and the world at large have shown, vividly, how the decades of neoliberal assault on countries’ socioeconomic systems have left them dangerously unprepared to deal with any crisis. What makes the Tanzanian case unique, I think, and what compounds the already existing problems within our society—the broken public health system, massive unemployment and underemployment, the almost non-existence of public policy to help the poor—is the government’s resolve to keep the general population in the cold and impregnable dark in regards to which strategy it will employ to manage an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Years of relentless war against transparency in governmental affairs, involving the suppression of such essential institutions as the free press, civil society, and the political opposition, have left a strange and numbing contemporary reality in their wake. Since coming into office in late 2015, the Magufuli administration has been treating these institutions as nuisances, making the government the sole source of information with almost nobody left to challenge its messaging.
Unlike neighboring Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, Tanzania is not on lockdown, at least at the time of publication. The country currently has a total of 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19, three deaths and five recoveries. What has been missing from announcements of government data around COVID-19, however, is the number of people who have been tested. The absence of mass testing, a practice recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to make efforts to curb the spread of the virus, had a former cabinet minister along with several health professionals, like this one here, worried.
While it is true that Tanzania as a whole is not on lockdown, this does not mean that business is going on as usual. Some smart businesses and organizations, which know the seriousness of the pandemic, did not wait for the government to call for a lockdown. Dozens of businesses and organizations have closed down already, directing their staff to work from home, and many more are expected to follow suit. In this business of staying home, the ones who will be hit hardest are the ones who make a living by staying outside: boda boda (motorcycle) riders, food vendors, and millions of others in unemployment and underemployment.
Take the sector to which I belong, the media, as an example. Most people who work in the media are underemployed, many of them working without even contracts. This is the rule in Tanzania, not the exception. Many reporters “employed” by the country’s media companies are paid per story. Already because many cannot survive by this payment system, most of them rely on “brown envelopes” given to them at press conferences. Working from home will deprive many exploited journalists of this income, a source that has until now enabled them to make a living.
With everything else going on normally—bills to clear, rent to pay, etc—and no source of income, life for the of majority working-class families in Tanzania, especially in urban areas, is going to quickly resemble a hell on Earth. And currently, there is absolutely no pressure on authorities to provide relief packages to the people or even a plan to do so if the worst happens. The last time the Dar es Salaam regional commissioner, Paul Makonda, begged landlords to slash rent for tenants by 50 per cent, there was no discussion on its feasibility or how it could be rolled out.
Against this terrifying background, it surprises no one that the Tanzanian authorities have chosen to concentrate their efforts on its war of “misinformation.” They have threatened jail terms and huge fines for people suspected of spreading “fake news,” and have not shown readiness in thinking about the impact the pandemic will have on people’s lives. They have not shown how they can save the country from a public health disaster. Many in Tanzania think that the pandemic has exposed the government’s incompetence in a manner that nothing else could, and where few expect the authorities to save them from falling in the abyss, perhaps, we should rest our hope on the people themselves. As the Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola correctly points out: “public health is as much about people as it is about facilities, and I believe in African people, if not African governments.”