“Pneumonia is our code word.” Reports from Tanzania this weekend suggest the country is spiraling into a terrible covid situation, a “second spike” not yet seen in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Because speaking about covid is against the law, doctors, activists and the patients themselves are referring to the situation as a “pneumonia epidemic.”
A 45-year old engineer, Weston Ndomba, recently recovered from the virus and told his story with great courage to Quartz Africa:
Ndomba spent two weeks on a ventilator with “a high temperature, joint and muscle pain, loss of smell and taste, and shortness of breath.” He miraculously recovered, one of the very few privileged to get into a modern hospital, and he convinced his attending doctor to speak anonymously with Quartz Africa:
“We are calling it viral pneumonia, or atypical pneumonia, as patients coming in have no features of bacterial pneumonia. However, we know it is coronavirus.”
Over the last week Tanzania social media exploded with reports of new virus cases and deaths. In a bold move in open Parliament Thursday, an opposition politician demanded that the government explain the “pneumonia” epidemic: “Let the government avoid stammering about this while people are vanishing in my constituency. I’m tired of funerals.”
Refusing to call it “coronavirus” the national lawyers organization announced last week unprecedented deaths of pneumonia among its members.
Pneumonia is rarely diagnosed in equatorial Africa and then usually with children under five years old. But it is the common diagnosis of those with covid who do not survive ventilation.
On June 7 the president of Tanzania declared the country “virus free:”
“The disease has been eliminated thanks to God,” President John Magufuli told worshipers in a church in the capital, Dodoma.
It’s been downhill ever since, as Magufuli prepared for a rigged national election that recorded him as the landslide winner last fall. He declared talk about covid illegal. He urged citizens to report as “traitors” family members or friends who snuck out of the country for treatment, or who brought “white medicine” back into the country illegally.
He then banned foreign press, like the BBC that was aggressively reporting on the growing number of covid cases in Tanzania.
But in the last few weeks it seems that his iron grip on the country is rattling.
I wrote last week of a courageous old activist and former Magufuli peer who publicly criticized him. Reports like this weekend’s story by Weston Ndomba and his doctor are being supported by new, public criticism on social media.
So it’s bad news and good news.
The bad news is that Tanzania is likely the worst country in the world hit by the pandemic, and specifically because its leader took Trumpian malfeasance to sinful genocide.
The good news is that the story’s coming out and that Tanzanians seem to have reached their limit of subservience to their political leadership. There’s no reason that Tanzania can’t get the same amount of vaccine as neighboring countries, once the will to do so emerges.