Activists decry night burials amid Tanzania virus defiance

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 00:00 |
Tanzanian Health minister Ummy Mwalimu addresses the press on coronavirus pandemic. Photo/COURTESY

Videos of night burials have been circulating on social media in Tanzania causing some to call into question the government’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

The footage shows funerals taking place under tight security with people wearing personal protective equipment (PPE)  and very few mourners in attendance.

Opposition politicians and activists believe it may be part of cover-up by the authorities who have not been releasing regular updates on coronavirus.

Unlike other countries, Tanzania has not opted for strict lockdown measures although mass gatherings at funerals and weddings have been banned.

But the secretive nature of the filmed burials is fuelling speculation that the true scale of infections around the country is being hidden.

“I don’t want to feel like the government is hiding something. I want it to perform its role. Right now, we are witnessing a lot of mourning, burials and bodies everywhere,” said opposition leader Zitto Kabwe.

“Without transparency, the citizens will be more scared, which may cause even more deaths.”

The Tanzanian health ministry on Sunday said there would be no more night burials and that from now on, family members would be fully involved in funeral preparations to ensure that the dignity of the deceased is preserved.

Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa has cautioned against spreading fear, saying not all deaths should be attributed to coronavirus. The East African nation has recorded 480 cases of Covid-19 and 16 deaths.

State priority

The government’s main priority appears to be keeping the economy going as President John Magufuli refuses to countenance the closure of markets or the lucrative port in the commercial hub of Dar es Salaam.

But some of the Tanzanian leader’s attitudes to the dangers of coronavirus have caused controversy, though those familiar with his leadership style may not be surprised, and his nickname, “The Bulldozer”, hints at his authoritarian nature.

Magufuli has insisted people should still go to places of worship to find “true healing” despite these being areas where social distancing is difficult to follow.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, mosques are open for prayers though the meal eaten to break the fast can only be offered as a takeaway.

While attending church several weeks ago, the president, a devout Catholic who has a PhD in chemistry, termed coronavirus a “devil”. “It cannot live in the body of Christ. It will burn instantly,” he said.

The president has often asked citizens to turn to prayers, with the government even setting aside days to do so.

He has also stopped the disinfection of public places, suggesting that chlorine spraying may be responsible for a rise in Covid-19 cases in Dar es Salaam. 

“There is no disinfectant that kills coronavirus. This disinfection that was done in Dar es Salaam is stupidity…. Such an exercise only eliminates mosquitoes, fleas and cockroaches,.” he said.

There is a debate about the effectiveness of spraying diluted bleach outside, which cities around the world have been doing, as it breaks down under ultraviolet (UV) light - though there is no suggestion that the practice will spread the virus.

The president has also questioned the safety of some equipment: “Even on the testing kits, the face masks that we are importing, we must ask ourselves, are we sure they are safe for our people?”

He would prefer home-grown solutions and has suggested the health ministry consider neem leaves, known as “mwarubaini” by boiling them with onions and getting patients to inhale the steam.

On Sunday, he said Tanzania would import a herbal tonic touted by Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina as a cure for coronavirus.

The World Health Organization says there is no cure for Covid-19 and has advised against self-medication.

Magufuli also cast doubt on the credibility of the national laboratory where samples are tested, saying that he had secretly had some animals and fruits tested and that a papaya (paw-paw), a quail and a goat had all tested positive.

“That means there is possibility for technical errors or these imported reagents have issues,” he said, without giving more detail.

Magufuli’s actions have on some Internet forums been likened to Kinjeketile Ngwale, a spirit medium who united Tanzanians in the Maji Maji Rebellion against German colonial occupation at the beginning of the 20th Century.

He may be a nationalist hero but his promise that German bullets would turn into water turned out not to be true and many thousands died in the conflict.

The WHO is happy to see that the East African nation has taken some measures against coronavirus, such as closing schools and colleges.

Though it says the fact that this was only done in mid-March, after the first case was announced, means an opportunity was lost to slow the spread of the virus.

“Certainly in Tanzania we have observed that physical distancing, including the prohibition of mass gatherings, took some time to happen and we believe that these might have been probable factors that led to a rapid increase in cases there,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa.

Social activities

And while sporting and social activities are not allowed, for most establishments it is business as usual. High-end restaurants and hotels may be required to only sell takeaway food, but most other cafes are still operational, with no distancing at all.

Public transport is still running, and keeping one’s distance from fellow passengers is near impossible.

At Dar es Salaam’s fish market there are water containers and soap available at the entrance, but again social-distancing requirements are not being followed, and not many people wear face masks.

And with the deaths of three MPs in less than two weeks, the main opposition Chadema party, which has been calling for parliamentary sessions to be suspended for some time, has banned its members from parliament and told them to self-isolate for at least two weeks.

There has been no suggestion by the authorities that the deaths are linked to coronavirus, but the move is a reflection of the distrust spreading about the handling of the pandemic.  -BBC

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