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Tanzania plays chicken with Covid-19; who will blink first?

Monday January 18 2021
covid pic

A medical worker displays a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine vial at the government Rajaji hospital in Madurai on January 16, 2021. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

By Aidan Eyakuze

In the ongoing global scramble for vaccines against the coronavirus, Tanzania may well struggle to afford the coronavirus vaccine and may find itself at the very back of the global queue. Should we worry?


Do we really need the vaccine?

Perhaps not, if it is true that Covid-19 has barely registered in Tanzania. The preferred official narrative about coronavirus in Tanzania is one where the country enjoys a divinely-ordained miraculous exceptionalism, where the virus is a hypothetical, almost conspiratorial conjecture at best, or a minor inconvenience at worst. We have had no official data on infection rates since late April 2020, the absence of which lends this implausible narrative a strong veneer of truth.

Ironically, the same lack of official data means every other piece of evidence to the contrary gains importance. The new Minister for Health recently acknowledged the presence of the virus when issuing new guidelines and prices for testing. We hear whispered insights from medical professionals too, and circumstantial evidence of friends and colleagues losing loved ones after sudden respiratory distress which proves fatal. Why did a school isolate an entire class for a week in November when the pupils presented flu-like symptoms? Why did a traveller test negative just before leaving Tanzania, then positive shortly after arriving at their destination?

Tanzanians seem blissfully relaxed about the pandemic. Our Kenyan and Ugandan neighbours are much more worried about it. Again, the lack of open data contributes to this sense of security. So, it would seem, are the many thousands of tourists who swarmed Zanzibar to enjoy the year-end holidays away from the second and third coronavirus waves in their own countries. I spotted three large Azur Air charter planes Zanzibar in late November, and friends tell me of hotels bursting at the seams with (mostly Russian) tourists, and beer running out on the islands in December and January. Even if Tanzania had eliminated coronavirus back in April or May, surely it would have been reintroduced since then.

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Or will we be at the back of the line?

Which brings us back to the vaccine. As of January 2021, a number of vaccines have been approved, or are nearing approval across the world. Three dominate the headlines in the west (Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna), while others have been approved for use in Russia (Sputnik V), China (Sinopharm, Sinovac Biotech), India (Covaxin) and elsewhere.

If Covid-19 is treated as a national irrelevance here there would seem to be no urgent reason for Tanzania’s authorities to rush to obtain the vaccine to inoculate citizens, or to mitigate any negative economic consequences.

Indeed, why would the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the African Union, which recently secured 270 million doses, prioritise 60 million Tanzanians when it comes to future vaccination campaigns, when the authorities so publicly dismissed both the threat and their advice?

Vaccines are already in short supply and will likely remain so for most of 2021. The first 2-3 billion doses off the production lines have been booked by rich countries. Canada, for example, has secured 500 percent of its requirements. No developing country has started a vaccination campaign as of mid-January 2021. By denying the pandemic, Tanzania may well have put itself at the back of a very long waiting list.

Will the government change tack at any point? Perhaps there is still time for Tanzania to publish case numbers and to invite international assistance. GAVI, a global vaccine alliance, together with the WHO and others, has established COVAX, to purchase and distribute billions of coronavirus vaccine doses across the developing world. The opportunity is there.

Otherwise, Tanzania’s status as a Covid-sceptic may have serious economic consequences beyond the pandemic itself. We could face the prospect of many countries – particularly those that have brought the most tourist dollars in the past – blocking travel to and from Tanzania. If Tanzania’s informational intransigence leaves us without an effective vaccination strategy, it is not hard to imagine many countries identifying Tanzania as an unknown quantity and perhaps a hotbed of the virus. Travel advisories may follow, and potential tourists would find it hard to get travel insurance. In a cruel irony, the facts may matter less than the prevailing impression about the incidence of coronavirus in Tanzania.

Tanzania’s coronavirus scepticism, data suppression and contrarian openness produced an unfrightened population and a tourism boom at the end of 2020. We may have reaped the short-term rewards, but the virus and its mutations is proving to be a very wily enemy with staying power. The battery of vaccines are a core part of humanity’s arsenal against it. Despite Tanzania’s official nonchalance, we will surely need to be vaccinated sooner or later, if only to maintain a normal welcome in the global community.

So, in this deadly game of chicken between a country and a virus, we may have to blink first, and soon.