Why Covid-19 report has put ministers in a tricky situation

Wednesday May 19 2021
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By Jacob Mosenda

Dar es Salaam. Top officials at the Ministry of Health will have a daunting task if the government adopts the recommendations of the team of experts that was set up by President Samia Suluhu Hassan to advise the government on the best approach to take in its war against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The team, chaired by Prof Said Aboud of the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas), submitted its findings to President Hassan on Monday.

It put forward 19 recommendations, including the need for Tanzania to abide by preventive requirements as advanced by regional and global bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The team recommended that Tanzania should adopt Covid-19 vaccinations, noting, however, that every Tanzanian should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be vaccinated.

The daunting task ahead for the ministry’s top brass will be on how to convince Tanzanians to go for vaccinations, considering the fact that it was not so long ago when they – in an attempt to go with the tune of the late President John Magufuli – publicly rejected vaccinations.

For instance, Health minister Dorothy Gwajima, who is a medical doctor, said in February that the country had no plans to introduce Covid-19 vaccinations.

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“We are not yet satisfied that those vaccines have been proven to be safe,” Dr Gwajima, who was flanked by unmasked health ministry officials, told journalists.

To add weight to her voice, Dr Gwajima and her lieutenants, under the full glare of press cameras, drank a herbal concoction and inhaled steam from herbs, promoting them as a natural means of killing the virus.

Dr Gwajima went on to warn journalists against reporting “unofficial” figures on Covid-19 or any disease.

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While the committee recommends that the government should start releasing accurate Covid-19 data to the public and WHO, Health deputy minister Godwin Mollel, who is also a medical doctor, had repeatedly been quoted in the past saying that releasing data could be counterproductive, and that it only served to spread fear.

His assertion had been that releasing data on “respiratory diseases like Covid-19” was primarily for use by medical personnel to monitor trends and thrash out solutions and not necessarily for public consumption. It is against this background that Dr Gwajima and Dr Mollel will have to make a humiliating about-turn if the governments adopts the recommendations of the panel of experts.

Dr Juma Sembela, a Mwanza-based development analyst said while health ministers in other countries were accustomed to dealing with Covid-19, ministry officials in Tanzania are likely to endure sleepless nights because of how they have been dealing with the crisis.

“The first task is that they will have to change Tanzanians’ mindsets in a bid to officially start following up the Covid-19 preventive measures, some of which they themselves were against,” he said.

Dr Sembela said many Tanzanians had divided opinions based on their beliefs in some religious leaders and government officials in the country.

“We cannot assume that all people will agree with all the issues that the committee has recommended, as there are those who still believe in the position of the previous regime. Will people come forward to test voluntarily?” he asked, adding that it is the responsibility of the ministry to achieve that if required.

For his part, Dr Richard Mbunda, a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, said there are many things that he believes were in the full documents submitted to the president by the committee which outlined the main task ahead of them.

“In the press release, we have seen one of the recommendations being vaccination, but we do not know what kind of vaccine is appropriate for Tanzanians. It is the responsibility of the ministry now to address this as well,” he said.

For his part, Dr Eranus Simbila, a part time lecturer at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), said there is a great lesson for leaders and academics who are supposed to be supportive in the community but end up hiding their professions.

“You have been given a leadership role to use your professionalism to help the community, you fail to do so. Now those who failed to do it, they have to do it anyway after showing a great weakness as professionals. Their job will be more difficult psychologically as of now,” he said.