Death by betrayal

Tanzania’s workers are at the highest risk for COVID-19 infections and deaths. Why are trade unions not taking action?

Photo by Hugo Ramos on Unsplash

A fellow journalist complained recently about being mistreated by the Medical Association of Tanzania (MAT) president, Dr Shadrack Mwaibambe, during a phone call. The reporter wanted to find out a few things about the current COVID-19 situation from the leader of Tanzania’s healthcare staff union. To the reporter’s annoyance, however, instead Dr. Mwaibambe shouted at him, calling him names and even declining to answer the reporter’s questions.

I am convinced that there is only one explanation as to why Dr. Mwaibambe felt the urge to react the way he did: a guilty conscience. And I would like to be fair with him by pointing out that he is not alone. Each and every person in Tanzania who knows that there is a responsibility they shirked in relation to COVID-19 would have reacted in the same way as the medical doctor did. These include leaders of trade unions who, for reasons best known to themselves, have failed to protect both the safety and welfare of their members amidst a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of so many Tanzanians.

In recent days, with reports of the arrival of a new and far deadlier coronavirus variant in Tanzania, death announcements have been circulating on various social media platforms in rapid succession. Reports of deaths have been so frequent that the word pole, Swahili for sorry, trended on Twitter. Many of the deaths announced are of high-profile, current, and former senior civil servants, university professors, and religious leaders. It is not known how many ordinary Tanzanians die every day given the authorities’ reluctance to record case counts and share updates with the public.

The new wave of COVID-19 did Tanzanians a favor by making the government abandon its false and dangerous claims that Tanzania was COVID-free. It has forced President John Magufuli to admit that the deadly virus is indeed present in Tanzania, though ignorantly blaming it on Tanzanians who went abroad to get vaccinated. Despite the alarming number of deaths, Magufuli has insisted that he does not intend to lockdown the country, therefore allowing businesses to go on as usual—a risky decision, but welcomed by many Tanzanians. The government has nevertheless urged people to take precautions against the disease, including, of course, using traditional medicines.

It is not clear how Tanzania is going to contain the spread of COVID-19 when schools and colleges remain open and protection measures are limited. No doubt students, their tutors, and staff will be exposed to the virus and risk losing their lives. A few privately-owned companies and entities have closed their offices and renewed their arrangements of working from home. Many public institutions, however, haven’t adopted that arrangement and workers in this sector  are most often reliant on public transport, where safety measures are anything but desirable.

Despite these concerns, not a single trade union has so far come forward to protest the government’s stance on allowing business as usual. In fact, the utter indifference and lack of solidarity in Tanzania’s labor fraternity is blatant. One case involves the reprimand of Professor Elifas Bisanda, Vice Chancellor of the Open University of Tanzania, for merely acknowledging the presence of COVID-19 in the country and urging the university community to take necessary care. For this Professor Bisanda was reprimanded by the Ministry of Education and required to apologize, with no support from the Tanzania Higher Learning Institutions Trade Union (THTU).

There are few exceptions, however, with the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) providing a model of what workers and professional associations are supposed to do during a pandemic of this nature. On February 19, the Bar Society issued a statement demanding the government tell people the truth about the presence of COVID-19 in the country. Uncharacteristically, the TLS revealed that between January 1 and February 19, a total of 25 of its members died of various diseases including COVID-19, and it urged authorities to ramp up protective measures.

There are many explanations for the lack of militancy in Tanzania’s trade unions, but the biggest factor has been state interference in unions’ daily operations. This is combined with the infiltration of trade unions by cadres of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM). The relationship between the trade unions and the ruling party is visible at local level where CCM district or regional leaders make their way into union leadership positions, or former trade union leaders contest for public office on the CCM ticket.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of Tanzania’s democracy. Power rests in the hands of a few, who have the ultimate luxury to decide how they can wield it, with little to no accountability to the citizens who elected them. Tanzania’s workers are counted on to produce the wealth of the country, but their unions are participating in their sacrifice at the altar of the egos of the ruling elites.

Further Reading