In Tanzania election, COVID-19 denialism an 'excuse to clamp down' on dissent

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A scene at a polling center during the 2020 election in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo by: Stringer / Reuters

GABORONE, Botswana — In May this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, the government of Tanzania stopped reporting cases. A month later, President John Magufuli declared the country "coronavirus-free." Last week, amid allegations of an intolerant political environment, Magufuli ran for president again and was reelected.

The government’s COVID-19 denialism extended to the campaigning and voting process and was even used as an excuse to introduce repressive measures in the lead up to the polls, experts have said.

Part of our series
COVID-19 and the Polls

As the pandemic rages on, elections continue across the world. In this series, we explore how COVID-19 has affected people’s choices at the ballot, how health features on political agendas, and the wider repercussions of voter choices during the pandemic.

Election observers also noted that the denialism is now widely accepted by many. New restrictions placed on the media that prohibit the publication of content on COVID-19 without the approval of authorities have meant that Tanzanians have no access to information, and many are afraid to speak out due to the fear of repercussions.

Election day

The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa said that the 2020 election “did not witness any meaningful measures to mitigate the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.”

The 2020 election day was like any other election day, according to Grant Masterson, senior program manager of the governance, institutions, and processes department at EISA, who was part of the election observer mission.

“If I compare 2020 to 2015, it was exactly the same. The people queued, there was no social distancing, there was no meaningful protective gear worn by the officials, there were no meaningful efforts to check for temperature,” he told Devex.

Data collected by the EISA observer team showed that hand-washing stations were only available in about 10% of the polling stations they visited.

Mary Stephen, technical officer at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa, said that the organization developed guidelines for elections in the context of COVID-19. These include making sure that people are not concentrated in one location by increasing the polling points and staggering the people that might come, ensuring that they are maintaining social-distancing measures, and having hand-washing stations across the polling stations.

“We know the danger is the potential for [an] increase in the number of cases or exposure of people to COVID given the fact that, especially in Africa, we have quite a number of people that are asymptomatic … so you could expose people. So this is why there is a tool that is available.”

“As WHO, we provide the guidance for countries to help them make their decisions. The implementation is up to them. They know what to do,” she said.

An excuse for repression

Tanzania has been widely criticized for its COVID-19 response, which has mainly involved widespread denialism. In May, when the government stopped reporting cases, the country had a total of 509 confirmed cases and 21 deaths.

Muddled messaging around COVID-19 complicates response in Tanzania

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has repeatedly minimized the risks of COVID-19. This has created a complicated environment for organizations focused on health communications to speak with communities about the ongoing pandemic.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said WHO had not received any reports of cases from Tanzania — yet nor had they received any reports of zero cases in accordance with the international health regulations, which would also help neighboring countries in assessing the level of health risk.

“We are ... in a position of not receiving any information from this country. ... We have worked to continue to encourage [sharing of information] so that it is clear not only to WHO, but most importantly it is clear to the neighbouring countries,” she said.

A report from Human Rights Watch, which warned that freedoms were being threatened ahead of the election, highlighted that authorities had “imposed new restrictions on the media, revoking the license of a newspaper affiliated with an opposition member and restricting some news outlets because of their reporting on COVID-19.”

The HRW report lists six instances where journalists and news publications were either fined or suspended because of coverage that authorities deemed to be controversial, including reporting on COVID-19.

“There is a very small community of people who are willing to speak critically of the government. … People feel that they can’t speak out because their NGOs might be deregistered; they might be arrested.”

— Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher, Human Rights Watch

Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at HRW, believes that COVID-19 was used as an excuse to clamp down on the media in the lead up to the election.

“What we found is that there were a lot of instances in Tanzania, of COVID being used as an excuse or reporting on COVID being used as an excuse to clamp down on the media and on people who will talk about it or present a narrative that is contrary to the government,” he said.

Two editors of independent newspapers who spoke to HRW anonymously said “officials had informally told them not to publish material that the government would not like.”

“That resonates with what has been happening in the country where if people say things that don’t match the government narrative they are punished and COVID was really another example of that happening in Tanzania,” Nyeko said.

Restricting digital information

In July, the government updated the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, which were first introduced in 2018. The regulations now prohibit the publication of “content with information with regards to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious disease in the country or elsewhere without the approval of the respective authorities.”

The regulations also ban Tanzanian broadcasters from working with foreign broadcasters without government authorities present.

WHO’s Moeti believes this restriction of information is counterproductive.

“It is important to counteract misinformation but I believe it is a lost opportunity to enable people to be empowered with information not to use the means that are available today,” she said.

Edrine Wanyama, a legal officer at the law reform unit at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, believes that the introduction of these regulations was used to remind Tanzanians of the laws that govern sharing of information online ahead of the elections. 

“It was a move to try and suppress information flow and freedom of expression in the wake of the [recent] election,” he said.

Wanyama added that the ban on sharing information on COVID-19 also served as a means of preventing citizens from criticizing the country’s lackluster response to the pandemic amid this global view that Tanzania had not done enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“During the elections, it is a time for public engagement, it is a time for online debates, it is a time for people to interact with one another and provide influence over choice of leadership and …  information flows faster when it comes to digital platforms including television and online websites and they chose to prevent such flow of information,” he said.

This restriction of information appears to have resulted in a general acceptance of the government’s position on COVID-19 as EISA’s Masterson noted that many Tanzanians believe that the country is indeed COVID-19 free.

“They will say ‘no no no Tanzania doesn’t have COVID-19, the last person who got COVID 19 was in April.’ That just speaks to the fact that the information about it has been strangled since then; that there has been no testing and no release of results and this is directly down to the stance of their president on the virus and whether or not it exists in Tanzania,” he said.

A member of the civil society in Tanzania who chose to speak anonymously due to the repressive laws said that they were initially skeptical of the government declaration but now believe it.

“For the past two months, there have been fully-fledged political rallies and there is nowhere where the gathering has been less than 500 people. … There is no incident which is reported, the deaths which are reported are ordinary deaths, you can't equate it with what we are hearing from other countries around,” he said.

When asked about the COVID-19 protocols in place during the election, a senior government official at the Ministry of Health said he was not allowed to comment and that all inquiries were to be forwarded to the Ministry of Health for an official comment. At the time of publication, the Ministry of Health had not responded to an inquiry from Devex.

Despite this strict control over information, Masterson said that this national denialism seemed like it was widely accepted without any challenge.

“It is not even something that the opposition were contesting, there was no campaigning against COVID [denialism] by the opposition,” he said.

Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition party, ACT—Wazalendo, said that he does not believe the country is COVID-free because there is no data to indicate that. He believes that the silence around the issue is a result of both, the “fear [to speak out] and acceptance, as people do not want to be locked down.”

HRW’s Nyeko, on the other hand, believes that the acceptance of the government narrative is rooted in the repressive manner in which the government has dealt with any opposing views.

“In Tanzania, with the restrictions on freedom of expression, people are very afraid to speak out. There is a very small community of people who are willing to speak critically of the government. … People feel that they can’t speak out because their NGOs might be deregistered; they might be arrested,” he explained.

About the author

  • Rumbi Chakamba

    Rumbi Chakamba is an Associate Editor at Devex based in Botswana, who has worked with regional and international publications including News Deeply, The Zambezian, Outriders Network, and Global Sisters Report. She holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of South Africa.