While most East African countries imposed far-reaching lockdowns in response to Covid-19, Tanzania decided on a laissez-faire approach, ensuring few restrictions on social and economic activities. Has the government sacrificed lives in favour of popularity? Helen Jones discusses
Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has taken a controversial approach to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, deciding against lockdowns or long-term government-imposed restrictions on movement. The President’s approach, which focuses on sustaining the country’s economy in an election year – an election the President insists will take place as scheduled in October – is yielding some interesting results.
Following the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Tanzania on 18 March, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa announced that schools would close and public gatherings were banned. Restaurants were subsequently restricted to providing take-aways only for a brief period.
Inbound arrivals were subjected to mandatory 14-day quarantine periods at self-funded hotels, and ultimately international flights to and from Tanzania, excluding some sporadic repatriations, ceased on 11 April. It appeared at this point that Tanzania was following the lead of many other countries that were in the midst of the pandemic.
Government-imposed restrictions were however short-lived, and in May it was announced that international flights would resume, tourists were encouraged to visit as quarantine periods were removed, and restaurants and schools prepared to re-open under business-as-usual conditions from 1 June.
In the absence of any government-imposed restrictions, any social distancing is currently being managed by individual workplaces and proprietors.
The government’s decision to remove formal restrictions and effectively encourage economic growth, perhaps at the expense of life-saving lockdown measures, has been combined with the suppression of official Covid-19 related data.
While many countries provide daily updates on case numbers and deaths, the Tanzanian government stopped releasing nationwide statistics on 29 April, when case numbers stood at 509 and deaths at 21. Attempts by local media outlets to allude to higher case numbers have been met with warnings and even the closure of some outlets by the government.
Anecdotally at least, the case numbers appear to be higher than the last official statistics. Tanzanian truck drivers, for example, are testing positive for Covid-19 at the Ugandan and Rwandan border points at a very high rate.
Startlingly, three members of parliament have died, including the well-renowned Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Augustine Mahiga, since the outbreak began. Although none of these deaths were officially attributed to Covid-19, due to the absence of any other explanation, suspicions abound that it was the most likely cause.
In May, when many suspected that the peak may have arrived in Dar es Salaam, secrecy surrounded the capacity of government hospitals; the only facilities able to treat Covid-19 patients. Testing results also came into question as President Magufuli suspended the director, as well as the quality assurance manager of the national community health laboratory.
In spite of the secrecy, at face value it appears as though Tanzania has largely avoided the catastrophic health crisis that many predicted. There are reports now that hospitals have additional capacity, and fewer cases and deaths caused by Covid-19 are being discussed in the major cities.
The demographic reality in Tanzania is likely to have shielded many who contracted Covid-19 from serious symptoms. The median age in Tanzania is 18 and a staggering 60% of the population is aged 24 and below. Many of those infected are likely to have been asymptomatic or have had relatively minor symptoms.
Although some Tanzanians remain sceptical of the approach taken by government, and some are concerned by the ‘second wave’ possibility and the resurgence currently being witnessed in parts of Europe and the US, there is broad-based support for the course of action being taken by President Magufuli and his administration.
Throughout the pandemic, mining companies, now the largest earners of foreign exchange for the country, have continued producing and exporting, the Dar es Salaam port has remained active, parliament continued to sit and the 2020/21 budget was presented and passed through parliament.
During budget week, the Minister for Finance and Planning, Philip Mpango revised downwards the country’s growth projections for 2020 to 5.5%, from previous estimates of 6.9%. The World Bank however, estimates Tanzania’s economic growth rate in 2020 to be as low as 2.5%. If Tanzania continues to keep its economy moving, the reality may be somewhere between these figures.
Balancing health and economic factors
Tanzanians look to Kenya, where schools won’t re-open until 2021, curfews are in place and restriction of movement in and out of the country’s two largest cities, Nairobi and Mombasa, has significantly disrupted commerce.
The sentiment in Tanzania is that a sensible solution, whereby social distancing measures are left up to individuals and individual proprietors to control whilst citizens are still able to earn a living, is balancing the health and economic realities of this crisis. The size of the informal sector, coupled with the lack of a social welfare system, means that lockdowns would likely have had a catastrophic impact on everyday citizens – potentially causing far more damage than any health crisis.
Although a minority of people believe, perhaps in a semi-state of denial, that Covid-19 is no longer active in Tanzania, the majority of people recognise the risk, protecting their health whilst also protecting their livelihoods.
The government’s laissez-faire approach to imposing lockdowns or substantial restrictions has however resulted in multilateral institutions largely shying away from providing grants or soft loan assistance.
Although some bilateral assistance from donor partners including France and the US has been forthcoming, Tanzania’s request in late March for soft loan financing from the IMF, via its Rapid Financing Instrument, remains unanswered. President Magufuli appears to have changed his tune on this matter, now focusing on requesting debt relief from funders – an appeal that is likely to be considered in the coming months.
Despite significant international criticism at the outset, Tanzania appears to have struck a balance that weighs the country’s economic needs with its demographic reality, with a result the majority of the population is broadly satisfied with.
With the country now better placed to fully re-start its economy vis-à-vis many of its regional neighbours, such as Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, which opted for protracted periods of lockdown, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) will not be overshadowed by the economic fallout from Covid-19 as it embarks on its campaign trail for the upcoming general election in October.