Op-Ed

A Letter to My President, John Magufuli of Tanzania

By Zitto Kabwe 29 March 2020

President Jacob Zuma (not seen) and Tanzanian President John Magufuli during the bilateral meeting held on the sidelines of the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia under the the theme: Harnessing the Demographic Devidend through Investment in Youth. 31/01/2017 GCIS

Transparency on data regarding current infections, new infections, critical patients, and deaths is very important in dealing with the coronavirus. There is no need for us to revert to secrecy.

Zitto Kabwe

Dear President Magufuli,

As I write this, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused more than 31 500 deaths from the more than 678,000 people infected worldwide. Throughout the world, health systems have been overwhelmed and the global economy is moving rapidly towards recession. And this is still before we reach the peak of the pandemic in the majority of countries.

Many countries around the world have had to take stern and stringent measures to address the virus. This includes many of our counterparts within the East Africa Community. Tanzania has taken some important steps such as a call to reduce unnecessary gatherings, encouraging frequent handwashing, and the establishment of three Cabinet committees to respond to the situation. Unfortunately, and given the gravity of the situation we face, these measures are grossly insufficient.

Tanzania faces many challenges in its attempt to manage this pandemic, including a weak economy and historically inadequate investments in the health sector. Official government figures show that our country has very few ICU spaces and those that exist are already oversubscribed. We have limited equipment for treating coronavirus patients, such as ventilators and personal protective kits for healthcare providers.

Human resources in the health sector are insufficient, with a deficit of over 150,000 health workers. Those working on the health frontline will need additional support to prepare them for the pandemic. Lastly and of extreme concern, Tanzania has a population of 1.6 million immune-compromised individuals (those living with HIV/AIDS and other “underlying conditions”). Additional steps must be taken to protect these most vulnerable citizens.

Given these weaknesses and challenges, the only route for us to take is that of PREVENTION.

As leader of an opposition party in Tanzania, a member of parliament, and a citizen, it is my duty to share with you and with the public what I deem to be the necessary steps that have to be taken in order to protect our country, flatten the curve and manage the impact of this global pandemic on our nation.

Firstly, national unity and solidarity on this issue is key. The coronavirus does not care about political party ideology, religion, tribe or race. It will strike us all. As leader of the country, the president has the power and the responsibility to bring us together as a nation and to provide a clear and just way forward. It is therefore imperative to bring together all political parties, religious institutions, civil societies and other groups, to jointly agree on how to protect ourselves as a nation, prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the effects on the most vulnerable in our society.

The role of science in managing the pandemic and mitigating its effects is vital. Therefore, please provide an opportunity for health professionals to guide us in the fight against Covid-19. Words that leaders speak to the public and decisions made must follow the advice of experts rather than personal beliefs or ideas. We need to listen to science. And one of the things that science is telling us is that testing is necessary. 

Countries like Germany have been able to keep the mortality rate from Covid-19 low (less than 1%) due to massive public testing. According to data provided by the Tanzanian Ministry of Health, we have only used 10% of the test kits provided to us. Our government reports show that out of 39,000 visitors who entered the country from Covid-19-affected countries, only 273 were tested. Why is this the case? Why are we not testing more, and if we are, why are we not sharing the results of those tests?

Transparency on data regarding current infections, new infections, critical patients, and deaths is very important in dealing with the coronavirus. There is no need for us to revert to secrecy. Talk to your citizens more often, provide them with up to date and honest information, and when you are doing so, make sure the Chief Medical Officer is available to provide technical information. There is a room for politics, and there is a room for technical expertise and leadership.

The government has taken appropriate measures in closing down schools and colleges across the country to prevent infections. However, what message do we send out to the public and especially to our children when they see they are not in school but leaders continue to address crowds of people? What picture do they get when they see you, Mr President, personally going on with large and public meetings? Steps should be taken to suspend all government meetings, including Parliament. Parliament can postpone proceedings from April to May, and courts can also do the same. 

The public prosecutor should release on bail all those remanded with bailable offences and those whose cases are still pending investigation, in order to reduce congestion and potential infections in prisons. We should make particular considerations for vulnerable prisoners, such as those above the age of 65, those with severe underlying conditions, pregnant prisoners and those in prison with small children. They should be released to complete their detention at home or to await the completion of the investigations of their cases. Times such as these require decisions that heal the nation.

In any case, our country cannot continue with “business as usual” at this time. I am aware of the devastating economic and personal consequences to our people if we restrict our daily activities, but I do believe that creative solutions can be found. For example, we could prevent overcrowding of public transport services by ordering the defence force, the police and even private individuals to provide uncongested transport to the public. It is paramount that people strictly observe social distancing by limiting their movements outside the home and by avoiding gatherings. Borders must be closed and everyone entering the country must be tested at point of entry, isolated and monitored.

The steps we will take to prevent the pandemic will affect our economy. Even without these measures, some sectors of the economy have already begun to suffer from the outbreak of the virus. I would therefore advise that a special team be formed of leading economists from within and outside of government, to conduct an in-depth analysis of our situation and to propose measures that need to be taken. An economic stimulus package to protect jobs, support vulnerable people like elders and caregivers, and revamp the economy will definitely be needed. The package needs to be well thought through and inclusive.

Finally, I wish you well in leading our country out of this great challenge. ACT Wazalendo and I will be ready to offer our cooperation to all Tanzanians in order to protect our country and save the lives of fellow Tanzanians. DM

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