Tanzanian president throws spanner into COVID-19 testing
| THE INDEPENDENT | For those who recall the #WhatWouldMagufuliDo hashtag on Twitter in 2015 and have been following Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli’s unorthodox methods since then, his recent sting on the country’s COVID-19 testing facilities is nothing unusual. But it is highly disrupting.
The global reaction has been very different from 2015 when the newly elected man nicknamed the “Bulldozer”, for his no-nonsense crackdown on corruption, absenteeism, and lavish spending, was receiving praise for his antics.
Today, his supporters still admire him but the chorus of derision, apprehension, and fear of the next Magufuli twist is growing.
Some people have praised Magufuli saying: “(He) has outsmarted somebody”.
But there is fear that Magufuli’s operation, which is already causing confusion, might make people refuse or avoid being tested for COVID-19 out of fear of getting wrong results.
Magufuli on May 03 courted controversy again by announcing that he had secretly had some non-human samples tested at the country’s national laboratory and they returned positive results for COVID-19. The President says the samples were from the paw-paw fruit, a quail bird and a goat.
Currently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report there’s no evidence that a fruit can contract COVID-19, although a variety of animals have recently been diagnosed with the disease, including cats, a dog and tigers.
But Magufuli said he was trying to vet the quality of the disease-detection equipment, which was imported from abroad. He said the results show that the detectors could be defective.
The President also questioned the credibility of the lab technicians processing the COVID-19 tests. He said they were mishandling samples and the number of positive tests were exaggerated as a result.
“That means there is possibility for technical errors or these imported reagents have issues,” he said. The next day, on May 04 Magufuli fired Nyambura Moremi, director of the National Health Laboratory Quality Assurance and Training Centre.
He said there is now proof that some people were testing positive for the disease without actually being infected.
“There is something happening,” Magufuli said, “I said before we should not accept that every aid is meant to be good for this nation.”
“This means that some people who have tested positive for coronavirus actually don’t even have this disease,” Magufuli said in a televised address. “The situation is not as bad as fear-mongers claim.”
When the biggest opposition party, Chadema, asked its members to suspend attending parliament after three MPs died in the space of 11 days, Magufuli responded by ordering that the payment of their parliamentary allowances be suspended.
The opposition MPs, he said, are being used by “imperialists”.
Magufuli has showed the same disregard for official data in the past. In 2016 he fired the head of the medical research institute after a case of Zika virus was reported in Tanzania.
At the same time, the president added fuel to the fire he has lit over COVID-19 when he said he was placing an order for an herbal tonic drink developed in Madagascar and touted as a cure for COVID-19. The WHO has warned that there is no proven scientific remedy for COVID-19.
In an April 20 statement, the National Academy of Medicine of Madagascar said the remedy Magufuli was importing “is a drug whose scientific evidence has not yet been established, and which risks damaging the health of the population, in particular that of children.” Among their concerns, scientists said the drink could drive resistance to malaria drugs.
Magufuli and his officials have also suggested inhaling steam to fight the virus. Baptised Covid-Organics, the drink is derived from artemisia — a plant with proven efficacy in malaria treatment — and other indigenous herbs.
Earlier on April 22, Magufuli had accused the health ministry of stoking panic by releasing new figures all the time. By April 29, Tanzania had recorded 480 cases, with 167 recoveries and 16 deaths. No new figure has been reported since then.