DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, May 21 – Tanzanian President John Magufuli said Thursday that sports events and universities would resume next month, after declaring that prayer had spared the country the worst of the coronavirus, even as critics say cases are soaring.
Magufuli has repeatedly played down the gravity of the pandemic, and it has been three weeks since the country released official data on case numbers, which stood at 480 with 16 deaths on April 29.
However while the US embassy has said there was evidence of “exponential growth” and the opposition denounces a dangerous “coverup”, Magufuli is proceeding to open up the East African nation.
“We have decided to reopen universities starting June 1, 2020,” Magufuli said at a political event in the capital Dodoma, adding that a decision on schools would be taken later.
He said sports events would resume on the same date, with spectators required to observe social distancing measures.
“I have not heard any sports person died from the coronavirus and that means sports are not only important for fun but also in the fight against the viral disease,” he said.
The closing of schools and universities, the halting of sports events and flight restrictions were the only measures taken in Tanzania to curb the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday, Tanzania lifted restrictions on flights and said those entering the country would no longer need to undergo mandatory quarantine.
– ‘Bombing people’ –
Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), said the government’s approach was like “bombing people”.
“Today, we heard that the government reopened universities and sports activities will resume. This is dangerous,” he said in a speech online.
He criticised the lack of data, which the government stopped giving after Magufuli cast doubt on the credibility of laboratory equipment and technicians and questioned official data on the epidemic.
Top officials at the laboratory were suspended after Magufuli said he had secret tests performed in which a papaya and a goat tested positive.
Kabwe charged that the information is hidden as a way to protect the economy, saying it would have the opposite effect.
The US embassy has warned of an “extremely high” risk of infection in Dar es Salaam, the economic capital, where it reported hospitals were overwhelmed.
“All evidence points to exponential growth of the epidemic in Dar and other locations in Tanzania,” an embassy statement said last week.
A string of deaths in parliament led opposition MPs to isolate themselves, and there are increasing reports of mysterious deaths.
“What is reported is not actually what is happening,” said a health worker in one of the main government hospitals.
“I witnessed four people die… in one day in this hospital” with symptoms of the disease, said the worker who asked not to be named.
– Herbal remedies –
Tanzania’s approach contrasts with that of neighbours such as Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, which imposed full lockdowns or curfews and movement restrictions and which give detailed daily updates.
Kenya last week angered Tanzania by closing its land border to anything but cargo, after a rising number of cases were imported from the country.
More than 100 truck drivers from Tanzania have been turned away after testing positive at the Kenyan border in recent days.
However Magufuli said Sunday that cases had “drastically dropped in hospitals following prayers.”
He declared three days of prayer starting Friday to thank God, while Dar es Salaam regional commissioner Paul Makonda has urged residents to come together and play music and make as much noise as possible on Sunday to celebrate.
Magufuli, 60, was elected in 2015 and quickly won praise for his no-nonsense attitude and efforts to stamp out corruption. However he has been criticised by rights groups for his growing authoritarianism and a crackdown on the opposition and media.
He has pushed for herbal remedies for the coronavirus, importing an unproven artemisia-based remedy from Madagascar, while revealing that one of his own children had contracted the virus and recovered thanks to steam inhalations using lemon and ginger.