Opinion

Trump, Tanzania, and the deadly toll of pandemic denial

Tanzania's COVID cover-up shows the cost of dimwitted authoritarianism

Former President Donald Trump's performance in fighting the coronavirus pandemic was the worst in the industrialized world. Other leaders were very bad (looking at you, Anders Tegnell) but nobody else in rich countries matched Trump's combination of maliciousness and addle-brained incompetence.

But at least one other president did worse: Tanzania's John Magufuli, who refused to admit COVID-19 was a problem, suppressed discussion of the pandemic, and ultimately died of the disease himself, along with many of his top political allies. It's a stark lesson in the deadly cost of denying the pandemic.

Just how bad was Magufuli's denial strategy? Joe Parkinson at The Wall Street Journal has a long investigation into the situation stuffed with horrifying stories. Coffin salesmen are seeing a booming trade, and graveyards are overflowing with corpses that hazmat-clad government workers bury in secret at night. Everyone knows thousands and thousands of people are dying of COVID, but nobody is allowed to say it publicly.

Magufuli's denial started early. He called the pandemic a "Satanic myth" from Western imperialists and refused to do any kind of lockdown. Political opponents and reporters were threatened with imprisonment for criticizing his strategy. Few Tanzanians were tested for COVID, and the government collected little data on COVID hospitalizations or deaths.

The result was a massive explosion of cases that tore through the population. Magufuli responded by recommending quack herbal remedies and building "steam therapy" booths that would supposedly heal the illness. People who discussed the pandemic online were threatened with a $1,800 fine and a year in jail, while opposition news organizations who wouldn't be silent lost their broadcasting licenses. When vaccines were developed, Magufuli claimed they were ineffective and dangerous. It seems he didn't want pandemic news interfering with his alleged plan to rig Tanzania's 2020 elections.

Though Magufuli did succeed in arranging another term for himself (and, later, arresting multiple opposition leaders), eventually his behavior caught up with him: "By this spring, the president was dead, along with six other senior politicians and several of the country's generals," Parkinson writes. The government refused to admit it, but it was certainly COVID in every case.

It's important to be clear that there is nothing specifically African about all this. It's the classic move dimwitted authoritarians in weak, corrupt states tend to make in response to serious problems: pretend they don't exist and punish people for speaking up. 

Moreover, every one of Magufuli's instincts was remarkably similar to Trump's. Our former president also repeatedly downplayed the pandemic, promised it would magically vanish, and recommended quack remedies. His idiot carelessness likewise meant he eventually contracted the virus. But Trump didn't have the level of authoritarian power Magufuli held to enforce his deranged will — and Trump's access to the best doctors and therapies in the world saved his life. The distinction here is less about intent than differing societal safeguards and, as a result, differing consequences. (And the reason Tanzania, like much of Africa, can't match U.S. safeguards is the devastating legacy of the European slave trade, colonialism, economic imperialism, and the Cold War, all of which grossly disrupted political communities across the continent.)

Tanzania's miserable pandemic record also cuts against arguments that authoritarian systems are better suited to controlling pandemics than democracies. It's true China has done exceptionally well relative to the Western average (though its initial bungling helped loose the virus in the first place), but that's the effect of a strong state with competent administration. Beijing's authoritarianism wasn't the source of its success; its competence was. If an authoritarian regime is incompetent or malevolent, the bottom can be very low indeed.

And while Tanzania is an outlier in terms of truly horrendous failure, many other impoverished states have suffered much worse than their official statistics might indicate. The Economist estimates the true pandemic death toll is on the order of 17 million dead worldwide — more than triple the official world number. In Africa, the estimate is eight times the official count, a disparity attributable both to rudimentary and overwhelmed record systems and, in some cases, reluctance to admit failure.

All this should redouble the urgency among rich countries to distribute vaccines to poor nations, again especially in Africa. It's the only continent still mostly unvaccinated and therefore the likeliest source of a dangerous new variant that could get around the vaccines. Were that to happen, rich countries too would be at grave risk.

The new Tanzanian president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, is apparently attempting a cautious about-face on vaccination, but after a year of anti-vaccine agitprop, it's hard going. Vaccine roll-out assistance from wealthier countries and the United Nations could help — and not only in Tanzania, but in any poorer country where state capacity is weak and COVID-19 is running rampant. Extending the offer is what both basic decency and self-interest require.

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