Tanzania: Does the country have a hidden epidemic?

Does the country have a hidden epidemic4
A freshly dug grave at a burial site in the capital, Dodoma. Source: BBC
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Daily US Times: Despite growing evidence to the contrary, the government of Tanzania continues to downplay the impact of Covid-19 on the country.

There is also speculation that Tanzanian President Magufuli is himself suffering from Covid-19 and receiving hospital treatment, although the government has denied this.

There are no publicly available records for recent deaths in the country, and no information has been released on the impact of coronavirus pandemic since May last year, when 500 cases and 20 deaths were reported up to that point.

The authorities in Tanzania have insisted there is little to worry about, and have taken tough action against those they accuse of spreading “false information”.

When the BBC contacted Deputy Health Minister Godwin Mollel, he sent the network his previous interviews, in which he said that releasing data publicly could be “counterproductive” as it could spread fear.

President Magufuli has resisted implementing a vaccination programme and has promoted traditional remedies. Source: AFP

He said that when officials analysed 2020 data, “everyone was branded as having Covid-19 because of the panic there was”.

The Deputy Helth minister added that the data should be kept by the government for scientists to analyse.

Hospital doctors in the country have been forbidden from referring to the disease in public.

However, in a busy hospital in Dar es Salaam, the largest city of Tanzania, a doctor told that there had been a marked increase in admissions of patients exhibiting respiratory symptoms consistent with Covid over the past two months.

He said: “There has also been an increase in patients requiring oxygen. The situation has been the same everywhere, in both public and private hospitals. Some patients are even buying oxygen for use at home.”

The doctor says, you can’t put down Covid-19 because it is not recognised, so it puts you in an awkward position as a doctor, and we’re getting no guidance on how to treat patients.

The Medical Association of Tanzania issued a carefully-worded statement in mid-February about “an increase in patients with breathing difficulties”.

But its head, Dr Shadrack Mwaibambe, pointed out that breathing difficulties could be symptoms of other conditions, such as heart disease, pneumonia and asthma, not just Covid-19.

Charles Kitima, of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, has said that in the last two months, more than 25 priests have died in the country, showing symptoms related to Covid-19.

Sixty nuns have also died so far with similar symptoms.

Funeral businesses have reported heavy demand for coffins. Source: BBC

Charles Kitima said: “This has never happened before, normally in two months we would lose maybe three or four due to old age, and other illnesses…we have to admit that we have a problem. Coronavirus is there.”

Another significant moment was last month when Seif Sharif Hamad, the vice-president of Zanzibar, died from Covid-19 – the first time a senior politician was publicly acknowledged to have had the disease.

The BBC looked at satellite images over time for a number of burial sites in Dar es Salaam to see if this revealed a larger number of burials than might normally be expected.

It was unable to see clear evidence of expansion from arial view. But it’s not uncommon for graves to be put on top of each other – something that’s not possible to map from the air.

And there is a tradition in many families in Tanzania of burying loved ones on land in their villages, rather than in communal burial sites in the cities.

An online survey of the public by a rights group named Change Tanzania points to a rise in cases and deaths from late December, worsening in January and February.

Zacharia Isaay, a ruling party MP, has spoken out about an increase in deaths and burials in his Mbulu Town constituency in northern Tanzania – without referring directly to Covid-19 – as well as shortages of oxygen in the capital, Dodoma.

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