Opposition politicians in Tanzania have accused president John Magufuli of covering up a major outbreak of Covid-19 in the southern African country.
Magufuli has repeatedly played down the threat from the pandemic and refused to impose a strict lockdown as many other leaders on the continent have.
Instead the 60-year-old has encouraged the country’s 56 million inhabitants to keep working and socialising, while a key ally announced a three-day “corona party” in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, this weekend to give thanks to God for what he claimed was a reduction in levels of infection.
Tanzanian authorities have not released official date on infections for nearly a month, despite requests from the World Health Organization (WHO). There were 480 confirmed cases with 16 deaths on 29 April.
However, the opposition politicians say they believe there have been more than 400 deaths in Dar es Salaam and between 16,000 and 20,000 cases nationwide, according to their own ongoing research.
“The government say there are no patients in the hospitals but we know of three hospitals in Dar es Salaam where the ICU beds are all completely full,” said Zitto Kabwe, leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency.
Many African countries have been praised for their response to the coronavirus. Though testing has been patchy and the true extent of the spread of the virus is unknown, there are still only 3,600 deaths and 120,000 confirmed cases on the continent.
Magufuli has rejected advice from the WHO on social distancing to restrict transmission of the disease, while laboratory officials were suspended earlier this month after the president said he had secret tests performed in which a papaya and a goat tested positive.
Colleges and sports events will restart next month, along with international flights.
International experts have watched developments in Tanzania with dismay. Senior officials at the WHO have made repeated requests for permission to offer extensive assistance in the country’s fight against the pandemic.
Earlier this month, the US embassy advised that “all available evidence pointed to exponential growth” of Covid-19 cases in Dar es Salaam and other locations in Tanzania”, and warned that “many hospitals … have been overwhelmed in recent weeks”.
The foreign ministry rejected the claim.
Hassan Abbas, a government spokesman, said it would be impossible to cover up an outbreak and dismissed reports that hospitals were overwhelmed, noting that one, which has room for more than 160 patients, only had 11 in it.
Magufuli cited several examples of improvement in a speech, notably at the Amana hospital in Dar es Salaam, where the number of patients reportedly dropped from 198 to 12.
But the opposition accused authorities of emptying clinics in order to counter international concern.
“The government decongested these hospitals in order to prove the US wrong … A number of patients were told to treat themselves at home. This will cause a very big problem in the next weeks,” Kabwe said.
The country’s neighbours fear that a major outbreak could spill over the country’s borders. Kenya imposed stringent testing measures on Tanzanian truck drivers after more than 50 of them tested positive for the virus in a single day.
Though schools have been closed, churches in Tanzania have remained open. A devout Catholic, Magufuli has described the Covid-19 virus as “the devil” and said it cannot survive in the body of Christ. In mid-March he ordered three days of national prayers against the disease.
The son of a peasant farmer, Magufuli faces elections to win a second term later this year. Experts describe the veteran politician, who has a doctorate in chemistry and won his nickname ‘The Bulldozer’ as a minister, as a populist who likes to fly in the face of convention.
“He’s set himself up as a firebrand leader who will do great things …. But he’s very popular and in charge of a dominant party. He’s in a fairly solid position,” said Prof Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics at Birmingham University.
Magufuli was praised when he came to power in 2015 for his high-profile efforts to crack down on corruption but has grown increasingly authoritarian.
“The problems with mistreatment are still continuing … There is a lot of pressure being put on the media,” said Kabwe.
Albert Msando, a lawyer, was arrested in late April after a video circulated showing him distributing masks to journalists and talking about the importance of the news media’s role in informing the public, according to the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition.
Three media organisations were fined for “transmission of false and misleading information” about the government’s response, and a newspaper had its online publishing license suspended.
Erick Kabendera, an investigative journalist, is awaiting trial on what Amnesty says are “trumped up” money laundering charges.
“People in Tanzania cannot express themselves,” said Roland Ebole, an Amnesty International researcher based in Kenya.