Tanzania’s new president appears to be taking a new scientific approach to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan said Tuesday that she will form a technical committee to advise her on the extent of COVID-19 infections in the East African country and how to respond to the pandemic.
COVID-19 “is not something we should be silent about or flatly reject or accept without doing a scientific examination,” Hassan said in Swahili.
We will do medical research that will tell us the extent of the problem and advise us on what the world recommends, as well as our own experience, “he said.
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Hassan made the remarks that were broadcast live, after swearing in key government officials in a room at State House, the president’s official residence in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. More than 100 senior government officials were present, most of whom did not wear masks or stay away from each other.
Hassan’s comments are a dramatic change from the policy of his predecessor, the late President John Magufuli, who was one of the leading COVID-19 deniers in Africa. He claimed in June last year that Tanzania had gotten rid of COVID-19 through three days of national prayer. He ruled out scientific approaches to preventing and treating the disease. He discouraged the use of face masks and instead promoted prayer, physical fitness, and herbal remedies.
The Magufuli government fired officials who gave other opinions and some were arrested.
Hassan was in her second term as vice president when Magufuli stepped out of public view in late February. The populist president was not seen in public for 19 days, prompting speculation that he was sick with COVID-19. Hassan announced Magufuli’s death on March 17, saying it was due to heart failure.
She made history when she was sworn in as the first female president of Tanzania on March 19.
Tanzania’s opposition leaders claim 61-year-old Magufuli died of COVID-19, the disease he had downplayed.
Magufuli warned Tanzanians against using vaccines against the disease. Instead, he promoted international trade and tourism, eager to avoid the economic pain of neighboring countries that had imposed closures and curfews and restricted international travel. He refused to ban public gatherings.
In his address to the country on Tuesday, Hassan also ordered the reopening of media outlets that had been closed during his predecessor’s rule. He also urged regional officials to encourage freedom of expression to allow members of the public to voice their complaints without being intimidated.
“I heard that some media, mobile televisions had been banned. I want those media to be allowed to operate, but according to the laws of this country. There is no need to give them the pleasure of saying that we are repressing press freedom.” Hassan said.
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Human rights groups have said that since 2015, the Tanzanian government has stepped up censorship by banning or suspending at least six newspapers for content deemed critical. They include Tanzania’s leading English daily, The Citizen.
Last year, the Magufuli government suspended a newspaper associated with one of the country’s leading opposition politicians, Freeman Mbowe.
Authorities used the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015 to prosecute journalists and activists for posts on social media, the rights group said.
The Tanzanian government also controls independent research and public access to independent statistical information using the Statistics Act of 2015, denying citizens alternative sources of independently verified information, according to reports.