AFP/Reuters Dar es Salaam/Gabrone
Tanzanian President John Magufuli said yesterday that universities and sports events would resume next month, after declaring that prayer had spared the country the worst of the coronavirus, even as critics say cases are soaring.
Magufuli has repeatedly played down the gravity of the pandemic, and it has been three weeks since the country released official data on case numbers, which stood at 480 with 16 deaths on April 29.
However while the US embassy has said there was evidence of “exponential growth” and the opposition denounces a dangerous “coverup”, Magufuli is proceeding to open up the East African nation.
“We have decided to reopen universities starting June 1, 2020,” Magufuli said at a political event in the capital Dodoma, adding that a decision on schools would be taken later.
He said sports events would resume on the same date, with spectators required to observe social distancing measures. “I have not heard any sports person died from the coronavirus and that means sports are not only important for fun but also in the fight against the viral disease,” he said.
The closing of schools and universities, the halting of sports events and flight restrictions were the only measures taken in Tanzania to curb the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday, Tanzania lifted restrictions on flights and said those entering the country would no longer need to undergo mandatory quarantine.
Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), said the government’s approach was like “bombing people”.
“Today, we heard that the government reopened universities and sports activities will resume. This is dangerous,” he said in a speech online.
He criticised the lack of data, which the government stopped giving after Magufuli cast doubt on the credibility of laboratory equipment and technicians and questioned official data on the epidemic.
Top officials at the laboratory were suspended after Magufuli said he had secret tests performed in which a papaya and a goat tested positive.
Kabwe charged that the information is hidden as a way to protect the economy, saying it would have the opposite effect.
The US embassy has warned of an “extremely high” risk of infection in Dar es Salaam, the economic capital, where it reported hospitals were overwhelmed.
“All evidence points to exponential growth of the epidemic in Dar and other locations in Tanzania,” an embassy statement said last week.
A string of deaths in parliament led opposition MPs to isolate themselves, and there are increasing reports of mysterious deaths.
“What is reported is not actually what is happening,” said a health worker in one of the main government hospitals.
“I witnessed four people die...in one day in this hospital” with symptoms of the disease, said the worker who asked not to be named.
Tanzania’s approach contrasts with that of neighbours such as Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, which imposed full lockdowns or curfews and movement restrictions and which give detailed daily updates.
Kenya last week angered Tanzania by closing its land border to anything but cargo, after a rising number of cases were imported from the country. More than 100 truck drivers from Tanzania have been turned away after testing positive at the Kenyan border in recent days.
Magufuli, 60, was elected in 2015 and quickly won praise for his no-nonsense attitude and efforts to stamp out corruption.
However, he has been criticised by rights groups for his growing authoritarianism and a crackdown on the opposition and media.
He has pushed for herbal remedies for the coronavirus, importing an unproven artemisia-based remedy from Madagascar, while revealing that one of his own children had contracted the virus and recovered thanks to steam inhalations using lemon and ginger.
Botswana lifts curbs
Meanwhile, malls in Botswana’s capital Gaborone teemed with shoppers and traffic jams returned to the streets, as the country lifted a 48-day lockdown imposed to control the spread of coronavirus.
The landlocked diamond-rich southern African country has recorded 29 Covid-19 cases, including one death.
President Mokgweetsi Masisi ended the national lockdown yesterday but kept some restrictions, including movement between regions.
Wearing of face masks remains mandatory and non-compliance attracts a fine of 5,000 pula ($412).
“The need to contain spread of the virus remains,” said Kereng Masupu, coordinator of the presidential Covid-19 task force.
“We are happy to be back in business,” Ismail Jacob, a trader running a cellphone shop at Gaborone’s oldest mall, told AFP.
Before allowing each customer into his shop, he took down their names, identity and mobile numbers, then checked their temperature with an infrared thermometer.
“We have to follow all the health guidelines so that we don’t contract this virus,” the mask-clad businessman said.
He was not allowed to admit more than 10 people at a time.
“Botswana is lucky because it has registered few positive cases and the government reacted timely to arrest the pandemic,” he said.
“We have to be vigilant at all times otherwise we will all perish”. Even the informal sector returned to life, as hawkers sought to earn a little money after the lockdown ended.
“The lockdown was necessary but it was bound to stop,” said Seabelo Mogogoma, selling vegetables and face masks in the streets of Mogoditshane, a village on the outskirts of Gaborone.
As part of the containment of the virus, Botswana has been divided into nine zones to restrict movement.
The public will be allowed to move freely within their zones without the need for a permit.
Schools reopen on June 2, starting with exam classes, according to the secretary general of Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Union, Tobokani Rari.
SA fears 50,000 deaths
South Africa could see up to 50,000 coronavirus deaths and as many as 3mn infections by the end of the year as the southern hemisphere winter leads to a higher rate of infection, scientific models showed yesterday.
The country already has the highest number of infections and deaths on the continent, with more than 18,000 identified cases and 339 deaths, but a national lockdown entering its sixth week had slowed infections.
However scientists and statisticians hired by the health ministry to model the spread of the disease said the country could see between 35,000 and 50,000 coronavirus deaths by November.
“We haven’t really crushed the curve,” said one of the experts, Harry Moultrie, in a presentation shown on television.
“We also have some significant concerns that because of the focus on Covid-19, this may compromise other areas like HIV and TB.”
The models, which consider best and worst scenarios, see as many 3mn possible coronavirus cases by November, while demand for hospital beds is seen peaking at 45,000, around ten times the current intensive care bed availability.
One of models showed the lockdown had reduced the rate of infection by 60%, and that since the beginning of May, when lockdown restrictions were eased, that had fallen to 30%.
“With the lockdown we were creating a physical barrier that prevents the virus from moving,” said Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize. “The lockdown had a particular value. Now we are trying to move to a slightly different strategy which is the risk-adjusted approach.”
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