Tanzanian President softens his stance on Covid-19 by urging citizens to wear masks

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Tanzanian President John Magufuli has urged citizens to take precautions against Covid-19 and wear masks, signaling a partial U-turn on his previous denial of the existence of the virus.

Mr Magufuli’s comments came hours after World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus renewed his calls for the country to share its virus data, saying the situation was very worrying.

Speaking at St. Peter’s Parish in Dar es Salaam on Sunday, Mr Magufuli, who nine months earlier declared Tanzania free from Covid-19, said citizens should listen to the advice of health experts and wear masks, but only those made locally. You couldn’t trust the masks coming from abroad, he said.

Tanzania officially stopped recording the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in May 2020, after President Magufuli alleged the national laboratory was returning false positives. At the time, the country had recorded 509 cases and 21 deaths.

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Instead, the leader of the East African nation urged citizens to use natural remedies to treat respiratory illnesses, such as steam inhalation – which experts say lacked scientific evidence. At the end of January, Mr Magufuli also cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines, saying the vaccines have had little success in curing other diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and malaria.

“Tanzanians should be aware that they are not being used for questionable vaccine trials which can have serious repercussions on our health,” the leader said in local media.

Last week, the vice president of the Tanzanian semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, died three weeks after it was announced that he had contracted the virus. Chief government secretary John Kijazi, 65, died the same day after being hospitalized with an illness, government sources said.

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After Kijazi’s death, Mr. Magufuli, a devout Catholic, called on citizens to undertake three days of prayer to overcome unnamed “respiratory illnesses”.

“Maybe we have wronged God somewhere,” the populist president told the mourners. “Let us all repent.”

In a February 21 statement, WHO Director General Dr Tedros urged Tanzania to strengthen public health measures, start reporting Covid-19 cases and prepare for vaccination. “The situation [in Tanzania] remains very worrying, ”he said.

However, lawyer and presidential candidate Tundu Lissu said Mr. Magufuli still does not take the disease seriously.

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“Magufuli has repeatedly denigrated the use of face masks, variously and delusively equating them with bras and openly celebrating himself and those around him who did not use them,” he told the Telegraph.

“Even on his so-called U-turn yesterday, he actually made the lower priesthood rebel against their bishops and refuse to wear masks. He actually praised the presiding priest and the two nuns present for not wearing them, and suggested that the nuns wearing face masks did not really have faith in God.

“If it is a U-turn, we need a new definition of the term,” he added.

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