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Is it too late to fight Covid skepticism and vaccine hesitancy in Tanzania?

Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan arrives to address a joint Parliament session in Nairobi on May 5.
Reuters/Monicah Mwangi
President Samia Hassan took a U-turn on Magufuli's Covid-19 policies, but vaccine hesitancy and Covid skepticism is still widespread in Tanzania
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A little over one month since Tanzania started its Covid-19 vaccination drive, the country has seen slow progress, with the campaign marred by conspiracy theories and myths around the safety of the jab.

Recent statistics from the Ministry of Health show ~300,000 people have been vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson shot. This translates to ~0.5% of its 58 million citizens.

One of the major reasons being blamed for vaccine hesitancy is Covid skepticism that prevailed during the time of the late president, John Pombe Magufuli. He downplayed the threat of the virus, promoting herbal remedies, praying, and methods such as steam inhalation.

Many politicians denied the virus was there…These are now the exact same politicians saying coronavirus is here and that people must vaccinate.

He declared Tanzania Covid-free mid 2020 though there was a spike in reported cases of “pneumonia” in early 2021 that many believe to have been Covid-19. Health officials were wary of calling it that given the government’s stance. He also publicly expressed skepticism around the vaccine saying in Feb 2021—one month before his death—that Tanzania had no plans to accept vaccines.

The U-turn in government policy on Covid-19

The new president, Samia Hassan, is battling against her predecessor’s stance on Covid-19. Has this dramatic U-turn in Tanzania’s Covid-19 policy come a little too late to convince citizens to get the vaccine?

While the numbers show some development, healthcare workers in Dar es Salaam report few appointments and short queues outside of clinics. A recent figure from the World Bank estimates there is approximately 35-40% vaccine hesitancy in the country.

“At first, the numbers of people getting the vaccine were steady. It was mostly those above 60 years of age. But it has slowed down significantly,” says a nurse in Dar es Salaam who has been administering the vaccine. “There is still a lot of fear. Many say it is too early.”

Though the country is still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, in the recent past there are fewer cases being reported. “The situation was terrible a few weeks ago and our hospitals were full,” explains one doctor from Muhimbili National Hospital. “Now we are seeing fewer cases. This may be another reason why people are less inclined to get the jab.”

Tanzania was one of the last countries in east Africa to procure vaccines. The country received 1 million Johnson & Johnson shots from the US in July and the government has stated it aims to vaccinate 60% of the population. Vaccines are available through 550 healthcare facilities nationwide, with priority for healthcare workers.

Across the ocean, Zanzibar is experiencing similar challenges. Beginning its vaccine campaign in July 2021, only 10,000 people have gotten the jab so far out of 1.5 million people. The island is using the Sinovac vaccine donated from China.

In a bid to convince people of its safety, President Hassan publicly got the vaccine, along with several other high-profile politicians. She has stated the jab will not be mandatory.

Conspiracy theories in the country persist

However, with widespread rumors and misinformation on Tanzania’s social media channels, many are left undecided on which way to turn.

“There is a lot of information on social media about the negative effects of the vaccine, and there are many vaccines to choose from. People don’t know which one is better,” says a citizen from Kigamboni. “Many continue to believe the virus isn’t a big threat here.”

Misinformation is also being broadcasted by some of Tanzania’s influential religious and political figures.

Josephat Gwajima, a politician and well-known preacher, was recently barred from parliament after alleging government officials had been bribed to allow Covid-19 vaccines into the country. During his sermons, he has urged followers to reject the jab saying it would turn people into zombies.

Rumours spreading on WhatsApp and on other social media have also said that the vaccine makes women infertile, amongst other health concerns. The data also shows a vaccination gender gap emerging, with 201,476 men vaccinated compared to 103,127 women.

Tanzania’s Covid-19 policy U-turn

Others believe that it has been the dramatic change of Tanzania’s Covid-19 policy which has left a legacy of hesitancy.

“People are still hesitant because there was a lot of misleading information when Covid-19 first came to Tanzania. Many politicians denied the virus was there. They promoted local herbs and [told us] to pray the virus away,” explains Dr. Deus Kitapondya, a medical specialist based in Dar es Salaam. “These are now the exact same politicians saying coronavirus is here and that people must vaccinate. The messaging has been confusing.”

Other Covid-19 measures also appeared to have dwindled, despite an initial resurgence in protocols after President Hassan first entered office.

“There is still not really a comprehensive approach. We are seeing large gatherings of people with very few wearing masks. There is little social distancing,” continues Kitapondya. “We are telling people to get vaccinated, but many are still not even taking the preventative measures.”

Tanzania’s low vaccination rate could impact its economy

The implications for a low vaccination rate could be severe, should waves of the virus keep striking. Some are concerned it could have wider implications for the economy.

“The goal of reaching 60% of the population with the vaccine is far off. I do not see it happening unless the government starts campaigning seriously,” says Dr Egina Francis Makwabe, Chairman of the Association of Private Health Facilities in Tanzania (APHFTA.) “The implications will be bad. The virus could continue to spread and create new variants – ones that may not respond to the vaccine. That is a big risk.”

Low vaccination numbers may also hurt Tanzania’s tourism industry. The country remains on the UK’s travel ‘red list’ and is classified as a ‘high-risk’ area for many European countries.

In comparison to its neighbors, Tanzania is lagging behind Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda on vaccinations. Kenya has already mandated vaccines for civil servants, while Rwanda has hinted it may take a similar path.

On 24 July, data from the Ministry of Health showed that Tanzania had 29 confirmed deaths and 176 new cases during the third wave of the virus. The country has reported 1,367 infections and 50 deaths since the pandemic began.

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