Updated: Aug 17
Reflecting on the ways countries have responded to the pandemic, Tanzania emerges as a striking example of using religion to shape the public perception of the virus. According to the latest coronavirus data, Tanzania cases and deaths remain stagnant at 509 and 21, respectively . Although at first glance these numbers appear very impressive compared to the over 500,000 confirmed cases reported from East Africa alone, these numbers were last updated in May 2020 . Ever since, travel restrictions, school closures, and limits on social distancing have been reversed. Former President John Magufuli of Tanzania narrated the evolution of the pandemic through the word of God, citing that the work of citizen prayers and local health officials has eradicated the pandemic.
Most recently, over eight-five clergymen have died from COVID19 following governmental claims that the virus had been “defeated by prayer” by the “the grace of God” . Other government officials have recommended herbal medicine as a cure for COVID-19. As a result of this misinformation, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged stricter precautions that continue to be ignored. Furthermore, the lack of accurate data on the pandemic automatically labels Tanzania as a high-risk travel destination by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and US Embassy.
Tanzania’s approach to COVID-19 leaves many vulnerable to the spread heightened by the lack of testing capacity. Moreover, for cases that have been confirmed positive, President Magufuli rejected this truth by blaming faulty testing kits . Furthermore, the Ministry of Health has rejected future shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine, which have been deemed “inappropriate” by officials . This declaration came weeks before we learned of the death of President Magufuli, where it was rumored he passed from COVID-19-related complications on March 17, 2021 .
While Tanzania is not the only country that has been vulnerable to the spread of misinformation, it is one of the few countries that has preyed on people’s belief systems to counteract the damaging effects a pandemic shutdown could have on its economy. Not only has the government ingrained in its citizens that the virus can be cured through prayer, but it has also questioned the validity of tools to identify its spread. This risk may cause individuals suffering from severe symptoms to exchange medical care for prayer. The death of many clergymen may hopefully reinforce, after the unprecedented death of Magufuli, that people are not immune to the virus and its long-term effects.
Magufuli’s pandemic response involved political denialism, which was costly to the lives of others who died from COVID-19. Although Tanzania continues to shine as a specific example of this phenomenon, it is not the only country that has relaxed its rules on social distancing at a time when it was most crucial.
While much of the world last March shut down its borders, restaurants, and entertainment outings, one country stood out as a model for COVID-19 deniers around the world. Sweden at the time did not implement a lockdown, and schools, stores, and events remained open as usual . The world’s stay-at-home order was merely a recommendation for people under 70 and without comorbidities . This was further exacerbated by their inconsistent testing capacity. It was quickly evident that this plan was a setup for disaster with a standardized mortality ratio of 61.1/100,000, which was higher than Italy, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands as of August 2020 . Also, Sweden’s total deaths in 2020 were the highest the country has reported in the last 150 years .
Despite Sweden’s mistakes, particularly to its approach toward nursing homes and other long-term healthcare facilities, we must explore the ways Sweden was able to bounce back from its previous shortcomings. Currently, Sweden approximately has a 5,000 seven-day average caseload peaking since January . With accurate data, we can see Sweden’s precautions in effect. The underlying question is how has Sweden been able to turn its pandemic response like a light switch shown by its apparent reduction of cases? Can the same be done in Tanzania as we begin to uncover the leadership style of its new president? Given the fragile healthcare system along with the competing priorities that focus on eliminating the incidence of other infectious diseases in Tanzania, coronavirus may become a long-standing issue exacerbated by the low physician per capita ratios outside of capital cities.
However, although Tanzania’s example evokes feelings of concern and uncertainty, their approach is not to reflect the actions of the rest of the continent. Existing outbreak prevention infrastructure coupled with optimal climate, and an overall younger population has led Africa to the lowest case mortality ratio worldwide. In fact, Lesotho is one of the few countries that shut down schools before any cases were reported, and this further demonstrates the success of a government’s active role in disease prevention . However, this point is not to distract from the idea that ignoring COVID-19 is an economic privilege. The decision of Tanzania and Sweden to soften social distancing at critical moments of the pandemic needlessly ended the lives of others. Unfortunately, while one country’s quick reinforcement of social distancing has yielded successful outcomes in preventing disease and death through citizen engagement, the other has to convince its population to erase the narratives of its former president and instill trust in testing, disease surveillance, and vaccines.
The reality of the pandemic demonstrates that coronavirus requires a healthy ecosystem of people and the government to operate harmoniously in defeating COVID-19. This rings true in the United States as contrasting responses by different governors have affected the trajectory of new cases and deaths. Time has revealed that an individualistic mindset toward the pandemic along with misinformation is a setup for disaster. It also has emphasized the government’s essential role in setting the tone of the country’s response which may foretell future success as the world gradually opens its doors again.
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