With the death of their idiosyncratic president, John Magafuli, will Tanzania now start to take the pandemic seriously?

As most of you will be aware by now, the Tanzanian president John Magafuli, died on the 18 March 2021 from what was officially described as a pre-existing heart condition – though which many believe to have been complications arising from COVID.

The president had become notorious for his somewhat lackadaisical approach to the virus, refusing to close Tanzania’s busy markets and centres of worship (mosques, churches etc), and welcoming all-comers to the country with minimal restrictions.

Alongside this ‘light-touch approach’ there were rumours of night-time burials, deliberately arranged to hide the true toll of the virus in a country that relies on tourism for much of its foreign income, and didn’t want the negative publicity.

Magafuli’s refusal to accept the vaccinations offered by charitable organisations – opting instead to put his faith in steam inhalation and a natural remedy from Madagascar – only underlined his idiosyncratic approach to the pandemic.

Bearing this mind, many observers may, somewhat harshly, be of the opinion that his death was nothing more than he deserved.

Whether that is true or not is a matter for debate. The question that interests us, however – and should interest anyone who is looking to visit Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari or visit Zanzibar – is what happens now?

Tanzania’s new female president

The new president of Tanzania is Samia Suluhu Hassan, the first woman to hold the post. Previously the vice-president, she was Magafuli’s running mate when the first became president in 2015, and was again by his side when he was re-elected last year.

In line with the Tanzanian constitution, Mama Samia, as she is affectionately known, will run the country for the remainder of the five-year term. She is also currently the only female head of state in Africa.

Whether she will put herself up for re-election after that depends very much on whether she wants to keep the post, and what kind of job she has done in the meantime; though as head of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the party that has held power since Tanzania won its independence in 1961, there is no reason to believe that she won’t serve beyond the next election in 2024.

A different style of government?

In terms of personality, Mama Samia is vastly different to her predecessor. Less charismatic, maybe, but less impulsive too, and more thoughtful.

But it is her approach to COVID that is really going to indicate whether Tanzania is going to head in a different direction or not.

For those who want her to make a more ‘grown-up’ approach to the pandemic, the early indications are good. Last week the Ministry of Health released guidelines about the coronavirus that were more definitively ‘science-based’. These guidelines included the use of personal protective equipment for workers in the healthcare sector and masks for their patients.

The president does have a fine line to tread, however. Contradict the previous regime’s approach too quickly and she could be seen as being disrespectful to Mr Magafuli; sit on her hands for too long, however, and she risks exacerbating the impact of the virus on the country.

One sure-fire indication as to which direction her government will take to fight the pandemic is whether the Minister of Health, Dorothy Gwajima, will be allowed to keep her post. Ms Gwajima is seen as very much a Magafuli loyalist who did much to promote the ex-president’s beliefs in steam inhalation and natural remedies such as smoothies of ginger, garlic and lemon to ward off COVID.

Many health experts believe that if Ms Gwajima was to lose her job, this would be the clearest indication yet that Ms Samia’s government was preparing to do a volte-face from the previous administration’s policies. If that happens, then it is also hoped that the true statistics regarding the impact of the coronavirus on Tanzania will be made available, and, perhaps, eventually, that the country will feel able to ask for its people to be vaccinated.

What this all means for the tourist industry

While Tanzania continues to welcome tourists, it is fair to say that the numbers are a fraction of what they would usually be at this time of year. The restrictions placed on all but the most essential foreign travel by most countries in Europe and North America mean that there is just a trickle of climbers turning up to climb Kilimanjaro, and only a few lucky tourists watching the lions in the Serengeti and the other national parks.

(To give you just one anecdotal example, our company, Kilimanjaro Experts, had one trekker on the mountain last week, but by all accounts he was virtually alone on the mountain. All of which made for a wonderful trek for him, of course, and some beautiful crowd-free photographs – though such paltry visitor numbers won’t enough to sustain the country’s large tourist industry.)

Currently, visitors who do make it to Tanzania will find themselves subjected to very few restrictions during their stay.

That said, the airlines are insisting that all their passengers have to take a COVID test – and that the test result is negative – no more than 72 hours before they board their flight home.  This COVID test costs US$100 and is easy to organise. What’s more, there are test centres in Arusha, the Serengeti and Karatu (near Ngorongoro), so even though the results usually take 48 hours to come through, for many people the disruption to their schedule should, hopefully, be fairly minimal.

The reason that visitor numbers remain low, however, is not because of restrictions placed upon them by Tanzania, but because of what happens when those visitors arrive back home at the end of their trip. Because the country’s relaxed approach to COVID has meant that Tanzania has been placed on the ‘red list’ of many countries – that is to say, those who visit Tanzania may well find themselves subject to extra restrictions when they return home.

To give you just one example: visitors to Tanzania from the UK – just one country that has listed Tanzania on the ‘red list’ of most ‘dangerous’ countries to visit because of COVID – have to quarantine in a government-approved hotel at their own expense for 10 days on their return home. This quarantine will cost them almost £2000 (approximately US$2600) – a prohibitive expense that has pretty much choked off the supply of tourists from Britain.

There are currently no indications that the UK government will be raising these restrictions any time soon. But hopefully, if Tanzania starts to adopt a more conventional approach to the pandemic, then its treatment as an almost Pariah state will be short-lived.

But if instead Mama Samia decides to follow the policies of her predecessor, then it is likely that Tanzania will be on other countries ‘red lists’ for many months to come – to the inevitable detriment of Tanzania’s travel industry, and the economic wellbeing of the entire country.