The COVID-19 pandemic has extracted in greater or smaller measure, a toll on human lives in all countries. Yet, a few international leaders have simply been in denial about the presence or the spread of the virus in their countries. Consequently, their administrations have been lax in taking measures to control it. These leaders have not even emphasised non-pharmaceutical interventions —wearing of masks, social distancing and hand hygiene. Among them is Tanzania’s President John Magufuli. Only on February 21 did he finally advise his people to wear masks but with a rider—they should be made in Tanzania!
Tanzania is an important east African state with a population of 58 million and a track record of able political leaders. The first President who governed the country virtually since its independence in 1962 till 1985 was Julius Nyerere who achieved great stature and respect especially in the developing world. His successors provided stability to the country. Magufuli became President in 2015 and was re-elected in a controversial election last year. Certainly, his approach towards the COVID-19 situation has hardly been in the mature tradition of his predecessors.
Magufuli declared Tanzania Covid-19 free in June last year. With such a pronouncement the need for either preventive measures or testing was virtually ruled out. On account of Magufuli’s attitude Tanzanian medical professionals refrained from recording suspected COVID-19 deaths; they attributed them to other causes. There was some public disquiet about Magufuli’s approach but this did not impact on the government. It kept advocating vegetable concoctions as immunity boosters to prevent the spread of infections which it claimed had come into Tanzania from outside the country
Magufuli was particularly vocal against vaccines. Media reports have quoted his as saying “If the white man had come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for Aids, cancer and TB by now”. It is one matter to be critical of colonialism for its historical injustices and exploitation and quite another to reject products of Western manufacture which are lifesaving. That displays not only a completely irrational attitude but supreme callousness when it is the first duty of any leader to protect his people’s lives.
So, why is Magufuli changing his sneering attitude to the pandemic now? Perhaps this is on account of the death of a senior Tanzanian political personality Seif Sharif Hamad at the age of 77. Hamad was the Vice President of Zanzibar and belonged to the opposition and his party had announced that he had tested positive for the virus which led to his death. Besides, a very senior bureaucrat, the Chief Secretary, who was close to Magufuli also died recently because of COVID-19 though in this case the cause of death was not revealed by the Tanzanian authorities. After these deaths the World Health Organisation Director-General issued a statement on February 20 expressing grave concern with Tanzania’s approach towards the pandemic. The DG asked Tanzania to scale up public health measures and prepare for vaccinations. It remains to be seen how far Magufuli would go to heed the DG’s views and go along with global consensus on the absolute need to vaccinate to break chains of transmissions.
Magufuli is an extreme example of maverick leadership in the handling of the gravest pandemic in a hundred years. Former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro were also in denial about the full dangers of COVID-19 for a long time. Their approach to COVID-19 was erratic and their countries have paid a heavy price for the way they handled the situation. The US is the world’s worst effected country with more than 28 million cases and over half a million deaths. Brazil is the third in this list with over 10 million cases and about a quarter million persons have died of the virus. In one respect Trump and Bolsonaro widely differed. While the former actively promoted vaccine development the latter has been sceptical about it though last month, he thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi when Indian manufactured vaccines reached Brazil.
Trump, Bolsonaro and Magufuli have led or are leading three very different countries. Despite its current difficulties the US is by far the most powerful country of the world and is also scientifically and technologically the most advanced. Brazil is the largest South American country and has a sophisticated and progressive society is considered as an important global player. Tanzania is still a developing country with potential but has made progress since its independence. Yet all three led by persons who allowed their idiosyncrasies determine their approaches to the pandemic led their people’s to suffer more than necessary because of the pandemic.
These examples show the importance of balanced and forward-thinking leaders who can rationally lead their countries in this digital age. While acknowledging the value of faith and religion in human affairs, leaders have to base their policies on the path shown by science and technology. Difficulties arise when leaders have to make choices between competing paths shown by science. These difficulties are compounded as in the case of COVID-19 when science is itself confronted by a new phenomenon and initially gropes to find the way ahead. In such situations established protocols do not hold. Even in such cases leaders have to rely on scientific and technical advisors and not be guided by their political and personal instincts as in the case of Magufuli, Trump and Bolsonaro.