Why picture of the president getting vaccinated is a game-changer for Tanzania’s Covid-19 response

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Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan receives a shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan receives a shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
  • Tanzania officially began its Covid-19 vaccine rollout when the president received her dose.
  • President Samia Suluhu Hassan's tenure has marked a complete shift from Tanzania’s previous policies on Covid-19.
  • Suluhu Hassan hopes to convince citizens that the vaccine is safe, after months of misinformation from the government.

When Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan received a shot of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine on live television on Wednesday, it marked a key turning point in the country’s response to the pandemic.

"I am a mother of four children, a grandmother, a wife and I am the President and Commander in Chief of the Tanzanian armed forces," she said, before rolling up her sleeve.

Suluhu Hassan’s vaccination marked the launch of the Tanzania’s vaccination campaign. Until she was sworn in as president in March this year, authorities in the east African country all but denied the existence of the coronavirus.

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Tanzania recorded its first Covid-19 case in March 2020. In response, then-President John Magufuli called three days of prayer. He urged Tanzanians to "continue praying to God and not depend on face masks".

As cases rose, Maguful accused the health ministry of sowing panic by publishing statistics on the pandemic. Officially Tanzania only had 509 cases and 21 deaths, while neighbouring countries battled successive waves of the coronavirus.

With no public data, Magufuli insisted there was no Covid-19 in his country, even as religious leaders decried the record number of burials they had to oversee.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan shows her Covid-19 v
President Samia Suluhu Hassan shows her Covid-19 vaccination record card after receives vaccination at Satate House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

When Magufuli finally conceded that Covid-19 was present in Tanzania, he blamed outsiders for bringing it. He also actively discouraged his citizens from taking the vaccine, arguing instead that it was a ploy by the West to use Africans as guinea pigs.

READ | From graft crackdown to Covid denial: Tanzania under Magufuli

Instead, his health minister appeared on television, in a show-and-tell on how to use steaming, along with ginger and garlic home remedies, to treat Covid-19.

Magufuli died in February at the age of 61. The official cause was a heart condition, but his sudden absence in Tanzania fuelled rumours that he himself had contracted Covid-19.

A new era

Soon after taking office, Suluhu Hassan was photographed wearing a mask - a marked shift from her predecessor who reportedly mocked people who wore them. She also tasked the health ministry with coming up with a clear response, which included accurate public messaging.

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Her government also began to cooperate more with the World Health Organisation and joined the Covax facility. Last month, Tanzania released new Covid-19 data for the first time in over a year. Suluhu Hassan told journalists the country had 100 cases, with 70 needing oxygen. The figures are probably much higher, but Tanzania has yet to establish a record of public data on the pandemic.  

During her vaccination on Wednesday, Suluhu Hassan tried to assure Tanzanians that it was safe. She also announced that the United States had donated over one million doses, enough to reach 20% of the national target.

The country aims to vaccinate 35 million people, to achieve herd immunity. In another shift, Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima— who once recommended home remedies — said the country was looking at acquiring several vaccines, including Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

"Great leader to end this terrible pandemic!" tweeted John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suluhu Hassan’s presidency has not been without controversy. Most recently the detention of opposition leaders harks back to Magufuli’s crackdown on critics. Still, her stance on Covid-19 may save countless lives in Tanzania.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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