Tanzanian President John Magufuli on Sunday urged citizens to take precautions and even wear face masks — but only locally made ones.
Some people see the comments as a possible first step towards finally admitting his country has a coronavirus problem after claiming for months that the disease had been defeated by prayer.
The president’s comments came days after the country of some 60 million people mourned the death of one of its highest-profile politicians, the vice president of the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, whose political party had earlier said he had COVID-19. The president’s chief secretary also died in recent days, though the cause was not revealed.
Magufuli, speaking at the chief secretary’s funeral in a nationally televised broadcast on Friday, urged the nation to participate in three days of prayer for unspecified “respiratory” illnesses that had become a challenge in the country.
“When this respiratory disease erupted last year, we won because we put God first and took other measures. I’m sure we will win again if we do so this time around,” he said.
“These diseases including the respiratory disease, exist, and have killed more people in other countries… we will all die, whether with this disease or malaria or any others. Let’s go back to God, maybe we messed up somewhere.”
Magufuli said, however, “we will not introduce any lockdown,” calling for all faiths to pray instead.
“Let us all continue standing strong by putting God first and take precautions.”
Tanzania has not updated its number of coronavirus infections since April as the president has insisted COVID-19 had been defeated. Tanzania’s official number of coronavirus infections remains at just 509, but residents report that many people have become ill with breathing difficulties and hospitals have seen a rise in patients for “pneumonia.”
The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has added his voice to growing calls for Tanzania to acknowledge COVID-19 for the good of its citizens, neighboring countries, and the world, especially after a number of countries reported that visitors arriving from Tanzania tested positive for the virus.
Tedros in a statement on Saturday called Tanzania’s situation “very concerning” and urged Magufuli’s government to take “robust action.” Others recently expressing concern include the United States and the local Catholic church.